Bush’s Decline

More polls showing Bush’s continuing decline, though neither the CBS-New York Times poll (63%) nor the Washington Post poll (69%) has a number as low as Pew’s 60%.

I wonder how many respondents think it’s their patriotic duty to say they support the President? That wouldn’t, after all, be unreasonable. If the Bush team can convince the Iraqi military that the only choice they have is between getting rid of their own dictator or facing the U.S. military meatgrinder, we might be able to bluff him out of power, which would be a terrific result. The more support it looks as if Bush has for fighting, the more plausible such an outcome becomes.

Meanwhile, the University of Iowa’s elections “market” gives the Democrats a 45% chance of taking back the House, and the Republicans only a 20% chance of taking back the Senate. At those odds, I’d tend to bet Republican; my understanding is that taking the House back would require the Democrats to win about three-quarters of the races actually in play, which is a tough trick to pull off unless there’s a real national trend, and the Senate is such a small-numbers problem that it’s hard to see how any outcome could really be 80% likely.

Is Sweden Really Worse off than Mississippi?

Why the smart thing to do with a “believe-it-or-not” blogospheric factoid is not to believe it. The perils of comparative policy analysis.

This topic continues to generate more controversy than it deserves. John Ray , for example, the Grand Inquisitor of the leftist heresy, defends GDP per capita as an “objective” measure of well-being.

A few points in summary:

1. As measured by GDP per capita, Sweden is indeed poorer than the US, though richer than France, Britain, or Germany.

2. Anyone who has visited both Sweden and Mississippi will doubt that the latter is in any meaningful sense richer.

3. Even comparing to the US as a whole, Swedes are, on average, better-educated and longer-lived, which are crude but still significant measures of overall well-being.

4. GDP per capita is, as Ray says, an accounting measure of total market-traded or tax-financed economic activity. It was not designed as a measure of net welfare, even net material welfare.

5. Leisure, clean air, safe and comfortable working conditions, personal security from criminal victimization, high educational standards, and highway safety are all aspects of material well-being omitted from the GDP measure. GDP also fails to account for resource depletion, whether of the forests in Brazil or the water table under Phoenix, Arizona.

6. It’s true that any specific adjustment to the GDP measure will involve judgments that are in some sense political. But that does not make GDP an “objective” measure of welfare. Using it that way implies a judgment that the value of leisure hours is zero. That isn’t political: it’s simply wrong.

The whole controversy has been, I submit, silly from its inception. Only the desperate need of some conservatives and libertarians to believe that Sweden, which pursues policies they condemn, must therefore be in terrible shape, explains it. After all, it would have been equally true to say, “After a decade of Thatcherite rule, Britain was poorer than Mississippi,” or “The disastrous policies of the Berlusconi regime have made Italy poorer than Mississippi,” or “The Austrian flirtation with a neo-Nazi government has left it poorer than Mississippi,” since Sweden is richer, on a GDP per capita basis, than Britain, Italy, or Austria. But of course saying any of those things would have been foolish.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Slate’s Whopper of the Week column is virtually always fun to read, though I wish it were more careful in drawing the line between actual mendacity and pardonable spin and puffery. This is one of the good weeks, with a thorough, efficient takedown of the Republican National Committee’s attempt to deny that anyone ever thought about privatizing Social Security. Congratulations to Joshua Micah Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com (to which I’ve added a link) for doing the spadework here.

Does it astonish anyone but me that veracity doesn’t seem to have made the official list of “family values”? George Bernard Shaw once wrote that democracy would never be a workable form of government until the man in the street resented a fallacy as much as an insult. Overstatement, of course. Nevertheless…

Generosity

My friend and colleague Eugene Volokh, ringleader of the Volokh Conspiracy (see link), has given this weblog a nice boost by mentioning it kindly on his well-established blog, despite our being of disparate political orientations. It’s a truly generous gesture, unlike, for example, his habit of beating me consistently at Scrabble. Among the many things about libertarians that are annoying to non-libertarians are the facts that so many of them are so damned smart and such nice people.

The Rule of the Chicken Hawks: Base Canard, or Fair Comment?

As C.S. Lewis pointed out about his Screwtape Letters, sometimes it is the howls of outrage that show where a remark has really hit home. That seems to have been the case with Gen. Anthony Zinni’s swipe at the war wimps in the Little Bush White House (led, of course, by the AWOL-in-Chief):

Here’s Zinni’s rude remark, as reported by CNN:

“Attacking Iraq now will cause a lot of problems,” Zinni told members of the Florida Economic Club. “If you ask me my opinion, General Scowcroft, General Powell, General Schwarzkopf, General Zinni — maybe all see this the same way.

“It might be interesting to wonder why all the generals see it in the same way, and all those, who never fired a shot in anger and really held back to go to war, see it in a different way. That’s usually the way it is in history.”

Eliot Cohen points out that civilians sometimes get it right when generals get it wrong. Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) and Andrew Stuttaford of National Review Online accuse Zinni of “channelling” Robert Heinlein, whose Starship Troopers depicts what Heinlein’s narrator sees as an admirable society in which the elective franchise and officeholding, though not civil liberty, are restricted to military veterans (and veterans of comparably dangerous civilian pursuits).

But of course none of this addresses Zinni’s point. He wasn’t challenging the qualifications of non-veterans to vote, or to hold office. He was asserting that, on a question of whether to go to war, the views of those with experience in actually leading troops in battle should be preferred to the views of those who had personally avoided fighting.

What Zinni really said was much nastier than what his critics pretended to hear him saying. Phrased as it was, his remark didn’t just challenge the expertise of his opponents: it denigrated their physical courage. Zinni could, of course, be wrong, as well as rude. One might equally well attribute the opposition of old generals to new wars to a reluctance to give younger men a chance to replace them in the public esteem, or to an undue concern with the institutional health of the military machine, and the welfare of it members, as opposed to the national interest it is supposed to serve. That’s part of the reason ad hominem arguments are so much fun; they’re gloriously unselective.

So if an argument is both impolite and without much analytical force, perhaps it not ought to be offered at all? I’m not so sure.

Historically, one of the strongest forces on the side of proponents of war is the presumption that they embody courage, the manly virtue par excellance, and that their opponents are somehow effiminate. (See Harvey Mansfield’s reflections on the contemporary importance of andreia, which can mean either “courage” or “manliness.” ) Without endorsing in full what Mansfield calls a “patriarchial” view, it would be reasonable to note, with Machiavelli, that the management and defense of the state involves the exercise not only of coercion but of punishment, the deliberate infliction of harm on foreign enemies and domestic criminals. Someone greatly deficient in the willingness to inflict such harm may be a good person, but he (or she) will be, to the extent of that deficiency, a bad ruler.

And if the ruler’s willingness to hurt is not accompanied by the willingness to expose him- or herself to being hurt, then we have rule by bullies. (Someone should remind some of our contemporary presidents that Theodore Roosevelt was using the Gay Nineties slang term “bully” (= fab, def, cool, neat, groovy) when he claimed the Presidency as a “bully pulpit”: he did not mean that it was a good pulpit for a bully to hold, or a good pulpit to be used for bullying.)

That analysis would seem to make personal courage what the law of employment discrimination calls a “bona fide occupational qualification” for a ruler. Putting one’s life and bodily integrity at risk for the defense of country is also, of course, a way to demonstrate one’s willingness to place the public welfare over one’s own immediate good, another quality voters might reasonably look for in those they choose to bear temporary rule over them. Little as I find to admire in Joe Lieberman’s public career, his freedom riding in the early 1960s, when white freedom riders were at risk of being beaten and even killed, struck me as a genuine character recommendation, and not entirely because of my admiration for what was then his cause.

[That military service is one good way to demonstrate the virtues of courage and commitment to the public good is one good reason, in my view, that it ought rightfully be open to all capable of performing it, without discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual orientation.]

Physical courage is also sometimes thought to be a sign of, or an aid to, moral courage, which is perhaps the greatest virtue required of a public servant, but although the virtues share a name and a common mechanism — what Plato calls right opinion about what is truly to be feared — I doubt they share much else, and there are so many counterexamples in both directions that it would be foolish to make any strong inference from a willingness to go in harm’s way on the battlefield to a willingness to displease one’s political supporters or defy the temporary public whim.

The political damage done by lack of demonstrated personal courage is particularly grave when someone now holding a dovish position also previously chose not to fight when many others fighting, as in the case of Ted Sorenson’s conscientious objection in World War II, which blocked his appointment as Director of Central Intelligence by Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton’s legal, apparently conscience-driven, but still rather devious draft avoidance in the Vietnam era.

What’s at least a little surprising is how little personal wimpiness damages hawks, or how little a good service record protects doves. Ronald Reagan fought World War II on a Hollywood sound stage, and it no more weakened his support among the “nuke ’em” crowd than his divorce weakened it among the “family values” crowd. By the same token, Lincoln’s honorable service in the Black Hawk War didn’t protect him from attacks on his patriotism for opposing the Mexican war (a precedent the anti-war forces of the 1960s could have used to some advantage, if so many of them hadn’t been carrying ideological baggage that made them despise both history in general and American heroes in particular).

Logically, of course, deciding not to serve in a conflict which one opposes on political or moral grounds casts less of a shadow on one’s personal courage than deciding not to serve in a conflict one supports. So it’s much more legitimate to challenge the andreia of those who supported the War in Vietnam but, in Dick Cheney’s lovely phrase, had “other priorities” at the time, than that of the anti-war draft avoiders.

Looking backward, I do not think it reasonable to have thought that a Northern-dominated Communist Government in South Vietnam was likely to produce greater happiness for the greater number in that country than the locally-based mix of feudalism, crony capitalism, military dictatorship, and rule by the Catholic minority that was the only practical alternative. But it was possible, then and now, to think that unification under Ho Chi Minh would have been the overwhelming winner in a free election, as agreed to in the 1954 peace treaty, and that respect for treaties and respect for self-determination ought, in some cases, to trump views from outside about the right forms of government for someone else’s country.

I’m less firm now in that rather Wilsonian view than I used to be — I find that I love personal liberty and the victory over profound mass poverty more than I do government by elections, and I’m convinced that in the not-too-long run personally free and prosperous peoples will find a way to choose their own rulers — but it still seems to me a quite defensible one. It was the view I held at the time of the Vietnam war, and it made my 4-F classification — for a perfectly genuine case of profoundly flat feet — a very welcome development. I was not aware of any particular visceral fear of fighting or objection to killing for the right reasons — I would, I think, have volunteered to fight (e.g.) to free Southwest Africa from South African rule — but I had at the time what seemed to me quite serious moral qualms about waging what I took to be aggressive war.

None of those complexities kept the pro-war forces from, largely successfully, challenging the manliness and the patriotism of the anti-war forces. If it’s sauce for the goose, it’s sauce for the gander. And, as I say, the imputation of lack of personal courage to, e.g., little Bush and Cheney based on their war (non)-records is not entirely unfair. Now how relevant that lack of personal virtue is to holding public office is a different question, but that’s not really a question the party that just spent eight years assaulting Bill Clinton’s personal character, and the twenty years before that doing the same to Ted Kennedy’s, has any right to raise.

It would be interesting to see the results if a the Democrats were to run a retired general, or at least a real war hero — Zinni, Wesley Clark, John Kerry — against a President who never managed to find his way back to the Texas Air National Guard unit in which he was sitting out the Vietnam campaign after taking a transfer to another Guard unit in Alabama so he could work on his father’s friend’s senate campaign.

It was a great mistake for the Democratic left to allow the Republican right to appropriate the American flag as a political symbol in the late 1960s. People who wear uniforms and carry guns — the military and the police — do an indispensible job, and enough of the public feels that fact deeply that the half-heartedness of many liberals about acknowledging it represents a real source of political weakness for the left. The Oklahoma City bombing — clearly an attack by a part of the Far Right against the American government qua American government — provided an opportunity for the Democrats to try to take the flag back, but the project either was never considered, or it was thought too hard to bring off, or the use of the flag as a right-wing symbol had so poisoned it for the liberal Boomers around the Clinton White House that they couldn’t find it in their hearts to even try to reclaim it. However that was, questions about patriotism and courage certainly contribute to the Democrats’ relative weakness among males, and especially among Southern and rural working-class males.

I can think of worthier ways of dealing with this problem than making fun of the fair-weather patriotism of those now urging us to go to war with Iraq, but not necessarily more effective ones. The usual epithet for hawkish draft-avoiders used to be “war wimps.” But given the overtones of assertions of, and challenges to, virility that underlie this whole rather disgusting line of debate, I prefer the more forceful “chicken hawks,” which in addition to its obvious meaning in context can also mean older men with a sexual taste for teenaged boys. If you’re going to be nasty, why stop half-way? As Mr. Dooley said (but perhaps Mrs. Dooley didn’t fully agree?) politics ain’t beanbag.

Cause For Hope?

Is it possible that Janet Reno will lose Florida’s gubernatorial primary, putting Jeb Bush’s job in play and ending an unbroken career of disastrous bungling?

Apparently so; her opponent has pulled virtually even, with a week to go. Reno’s popularity has posed a serious problem for those of us who would like to think that the voters have at least some vague idea of what they’re doing.

I suppose Republicans must be emotionally torn about this race; for Democrats, her defeat would be the source of pure, unalloyed joy.

And, speaking of Democrats I’d love to see lose, at a party this weekend I ran into a Very Big Wheel in Los Angeles Democratic politics, who told me (and anyone else who would listen) that he was trying to get Dick Riordan to run as a write-in candidate against Gray Davis and Simple Simon, and that if that didn’t work he was going to vote for Simon. (I have no reason to think he wouldn’t want his name used — I barely know him, so I presume he’s not keeping it close — but I haven’t seen this in the newspapers, so I’m suppressing his name just in case he’s keeping his role somewhat quiet. His reputation is as a savvy power player, slightly on the conservative side for an LA Democrat.)

I had already pretty much decided to vote for Simon as a protest gesture against Davis’s government-by-fundraiser and his subservience to the prison guards’ union on all criminal-justice issues, on the theory that Simon was sure to lose. But the politico said that even a Simon victory would be better for social-services budgets than four more years of the Gray Ghost. I can’t believe that’s literally true, but it’s a measure of just how mad some people are. Hard to believe that Riordan would really try it, but if he did things could get interesting.

Some Inconclusive Thoughts about the Death Penalty

As an abstract question in moral philosophy, I think I’m for capital punishment, on two grounds.

First, if we punish petty theft with a little time behind bars and aggravated assault with somewhat more time behind bars, arguably there are some crimes – and I’m not at all sure that homicide is alone – that ought to be punished in some way not reducible to the less-time/more-time dimension, precisely because we want to mark them out as capital – i.e., chief – offenses.

Second, the real suffering created by a relatively humane execution may be much less, integrating over time, than the suffering created by a long prison term, both for the offender and for his intimates, and yet the fear of death appears to be such that most offenders (not all) prefer any non-capital sentence to death. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, the ideal punishment is the one that combines the maximum of terror with the minimum of actual suffering. [That argument would be more persuasive, of course, if the gap between sentence and execution were shorter; even if killing someone is less cruel than locking him in a cage for the rest of his life, forcing him to spend a decade waiting to be killed may not be. The same applies to the suffering of his intimates.]

Moreover, I’m not at all comfortable with life in prison without parole, or even with very long sentences short of that, because I don’t think that the 60-year-old we’re keeping in prison is, in the relevant sense, ‘the same person’ as the 20-year-old who committed that murder forty years ago.

And the risk of executing someone innocent is a strong argument against capital punishment only if death is in fact a much worse penalty than long imprisonment. I’d love to see procedural changes, starting out with much stronger charges to juries about the meaning of ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt,’ to make it less likely that innocent people get convicted, because I’m convinced that the we now have literally tens of thousands of innocents behind bars. But the abolition of the death penalty wouldn’t change that concern at all.

(There is, apparently, evidence to support the common-sense proposition that death-qualified juries — those from which jurors unwilling to convict in capital cases have been excluded — are more conviction-prone than ordinary juries, but that problem could be overcome by having a non-death-qualified jury consider guilt, without being told whether the case is a capital one or not, and a death-qualified jury consider the penalty.)

It’s also more than possible, though not proven, that the threat of execution changes the behavior of some offenders in the right direction. Putting the econometric evidence aside, as I’m inclined to do on topics this complex, there are accounts of bank robbery gangs in the 1930s who went into banks with unloaded weapons precisely to avoid the risk that someone would be killed and the robbers therefore subject to execution. I believe it is also the case that kidnappers-for-ransom of that era were reluctant to kill their victims – otherwise presumably a risk-reducing step – for the same reason.

Of course the opposite effect is also possible: perhaps some people commit crimes precisely so as to be executed, or find that the commission of a capital offense adds to the thrill. The empirical question — or quasi-empirical, if as a practical matter we can’t convincingly disentangle all the evidence — is whether the net effect is positive or negative. (And of course the answer to that might not be the same in all times and places.)

In my moral calculus, saving the lives of victims outweighs saving the lives of aggressors, at least if the numbers are even, and possibly even if they aren’t. The distinction between aggressors and victims seems to me to trump the action/omission argument that it’s not in general justified to cause a death directly in order to prevent a larger number of deaths. The cases used to make that argument tend to involve innocent parties on both sides, which is not the case here.

I recall an essay, though I’ve forgotten the title and author [Can any reader supply?] which makes the general moral case for the practice of criminal punishment on the following argument: If a situation arises in which it necessary that either A or B be injured, and if that situation arises due to the action of A, then it is A who should suffer. Insofar as that argument is valid, it greatly weakens the force of the argument from the act/omission distinction.

All that said, I have no trouble understanding, and sympathizing with, the position of those who regard capital punishment as the last vestige of human sacrifice and are aggrieved at being made complicit in it as taxpayers and voters.

(If I were a Christian, I think I would regard the account of the woman taken in adultery [John 8 1-11] as reflecting a clear judgment against the practice.)

When pro- and anti-death penalty demonstrators shout at one another outside a prison where someone is being killed, I know which group I’d rather go out to a meal with afterwards.

What I’m pretty sure of is that, in purely practical terms, the death penalty doesn’t deserve the attention it gets from either side of the debate. With the annual execution count below 100 and the annual homicide count near 20,000, it seems to me perverse, in a world of limited resources, to worry about abolishing executions rather than preventing murders. But even if it were the case that the death penalty prevented homicide, as a practical matter we could never carry it out frequently enough to make a measurable difference.

From the perspective of a generation ago, with rising crime rates and a scarcity of prison beds, it was not entirely irrational for voters – many of them angry about crime, prepared to be cruel to criminals in order to stop it, and worried that elected and appointed officials might be unduly inclined toward mercy – to use support for the death penalty as a simple test for a candidate’s willingness to be tough. But surely, with 2 million people behind bars, we’ve gotten tough enough.

I am, therefore, indifferent on the question of a moratorium on executions. But as someone professionally concerned with crime control, I’m a strong supporter of a moratorium on debating the subject; it’s a distraction from the work we really need to do.