Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A New Orleans TV station has some information from the Army Corps of Engineers on its website. It looks like it will be weeks (at best) before all of New Orleans is dry again, let alone habitable. A blunt explanation is given for why the flooding is as bad as it is:
Q.2. Why did the levees fail?

A.2. What failed were actually floodwalls, not levees. This was caused by overtopping which caused scouring, or an eating away of the earthen support, which then basically undermined the wall.

These walls and levees were designed to withstand a fast moving category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a strong 4 at landfall, and conditions exceeded the design.

Q.3. Why only Category 3 protection?

A.3. That is what we were authorized to do.
Presumably, after billions are spent rebuilding New Orleans, billions more will be spent on a system of barriers that can withstand tougher conditions. In the meanwhile, let us focus on helping the hurricane victims.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

James Glassman points out that increased fuel efficiency in our vehicles will most likely increase our dependence on foreign oil:
In this graph, the authors [Peter Huber and Mark Mills] show how the "energy cost" of transportation in the U.S. fell by nearly one-third between 1973 and 2003; that is, we used to use nine gallons of fuel for every vehicle mile, now about six. But over this same period, total fuel use did not drop by one-third (as it would under the silly static analysis employed by Mineta and Zakaria); instead, fuel use rose by more than half, from a little under 120 billion gallons per year to over 180 billion gallons.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I'm a federalist nobody

Jack Balkin boldly asserts that,
Nobody, and I mean nobody, whether Democrat or Republican, really wants to live under the Constitution according to the original understanding once they truly understand what that entails. Calls for a return to the framers' understandings are a political slogan, not a serious theory of constitutional decision-making.
I must now raise my hand from the back of the class and insistently plead, "I do! I do!"

Here's Balkin's case:
Many Americans fail to realize how much of our current law and institutions are inconsistent with the original expectations of the founding generation. A host of federal laws securing the environment, protecting workers and consumers—even central aspects of Social Security—go beyond the original understanding of federal power, not to mention most federal civil rights laws that protect women, racial and religious minorities, and the disabled from private discrimination. Independent federal agencies like the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission would all be unconstitutional under the original understanding of the Constitution. Presidential authority would be vastly curtailed—including all the powers that the Bush administration regularly touts. Indeed, most of the Bush administration's policy goals—from No Child Left Behind to national tort reform—would be beyond federal power.

Conversely, a vast number of civil-liberties guarantees we now expect from our Constitution have no basis in the original understanding. If you reject the living Constitution, you also reject constitutional guarantees of equality for women, not to mention Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Liberals and conservatives alike would be discomfited. The original understanding cannot explain why the Constitution would limit race-conscious affirmative action by the federal government, nor does it justify the current scope of executive power.
I mostly agree with the above passage. I'd only really quibble with Balkin about federal regulation of commerce. Intrastate commerce is constitutionally beyond the authority of agencies like the FTC, but the commerce clause obviously leaves a reduced role for the FTC in regulating interstate commerce.

Modulo this quibble, I would be quite happy to see the abolishment of all of Balkin's examples of unconstitutional federal power. To me, Balkin's list is a just a good start. While we're at it, let's end federal involvement in abortion law, and abolish Medicare, the Dept. of Education, and the Dept. of Energy, leaving these matters to the states and/or private actors, Tenth-Amendment-style.

I think it's a tragedy that federalism has been eviscerated in this country. Federalism is frequently praised for being better at accomodating diverse views on social issues like abortion, drug use, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, and so on. Less frequently mentioned is that federalism can also better accomodate diverse views on issues like the size of the welfare state and of the regulatory state.

As for Loving and Brown, Balkin is implicitly arguing that the people of individual states can't be trusted when it comes to racial discrimination. Well, between the Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, we indeed curtailed state power here. (By the way, some originalists (but not I, nor the non-originalist Balkin) think that Brown actually does follow from the original understanding of the 14th amendment.) Clearly, the Jim Crow laws that came after Reconstruction ended were a terrible thing. But it doesn't follow that the Supreme Court had to step in. Brown and Loving probably accelerated some changes in the South, but these changes were inevitable, e.g. the 24th Amendment.

Finally, I dislike the way the term "living constitution" is used. If a written agreement is not enforced, then it becomes a dead letter, e.g. the 10th Amendment. Therefore, a constitution should be called alive if and only if it still being enforced. In this sense, the Constitution is alive, but seriously wounded.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Will the welfare state grow?

Tyler Cowen ponders the future:
Imagine that nanotechnology, or some other version of The Next Big Thing, came to pass. The bounty of nature would be replaced by the bounty of science. Might our economy look a bit more like the welfare policies of the Gulf states, albeit with greater diversification? Won't we massively expand our welfare state? Since the whole point is not to work, no one will complain much about the high (implicit or explicit) marginal tax rates. The rush will be to get in, not to leave town.
First, will we most want leisure when the great technological windfall comes? Or will we so crave the newest toys that we will work overtime to get them? In other words, do you want the vacation, or the big screen HDTV? Maybe instead of spending our windfall on a bigger welfare state, the middle class will demand and get tax cuts so that they can more easily afford their mortage payments for their smart mansions that come with robotic butlers. You may think such materialism is beneath you, but if all your peers have smart mansions, or your children demand to know why they don't have robot butlers to bring them breakfast in bed like all their friends do, then would you really be able to resist the temptation? My bet is that you would get the mansion and, if you feel guilty, that you'll give some money to charity.

Second, unlike the oil wealth of the Gulf states, the premise of a technological "free lunch" is dubious. Look at the big three U.S. automakers. Back in the day, they could afford generous wages, pensions, and health benefits. Now, they struggle to compete against foreign automakers who compensate their workers with much less. As for the more recent IT revolution, have we not already experienced outsourcing scares? Technological windfalls are temporary; it is innovation that is sustainable. Thus, if we get a technological windfall and take the Western European route of more leisure, less stuff, and higher taxes, then eventually we will watch freer economies surpass us. If our primary concern becomes leisure, then this won't really bother us, but how much leisure we will choose is precisely what is in doubt.

I'd hate to have to choose between crass materialism and a bigger welfare state, because I really don't care for either. I think we spend too much time and money on things already. Our savings rate is currently down to zero. As for charity, even most Christians in America don't come close to tithing. And I worry about the deline in social capital documented by Robert Putnam. Of course, I also loathe middle class entitlements. For no other cause is more wealth forcibly confiscated. Meanwhile, its effects on its so-called beneficiaries include an eroded work ethic, an utter dependence on the state, and the inefficient service the comes with state control and/or subsidies. Perhaps this is just my version of utopia, but I think the economic arrangement we should strive for is one including a strong work ethic, frugal consumption, wiser use of leisure time, high savings rates, minimal dependence on the state, and very generous private charity.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Merck verdict

There's much commentary on the Merck verdict, for example here and here. There's a lot of concern that juries simply aren't qualified to decide cases as technical as this one. I strongly share this concern, so what should be done? First of all, it's not politically feasible to alter the Seventh Amendment:
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Tort reform is somewhat more feasible. It doesn't take away the right to jury trial; it just limits the effect of the verdict. However, tort reform takes time, is not guaranteed to succeed, and can be reversed, especially considering that each state has its own tort laws. What should companies like Merck do in the meanwhile, under our current system?

If I were a drug company, I would simply refuse to sell my product to anyone who doesn't sign a waiver that agrees to submit to third-party arbitration. I would only do business with resellers who agree to assume full liability if they sell to customers who don't sign the waiver. For medical emergencies, in which drugs are administered to patients unable to sign waivers, I'd require whoever administers those drugs to assume full liability if they want to buy from me. Don't worry: most states protect emergency caregivers with Good Samaritan laws.

If my idea's so good, why hasn't Merck done it already? Are there laws against it? In that case, I don't see any alternative to focusing on trying to change the laws. Another possibility: would customers revolt, looking for the closest substitutes they could find from other drug companies? I doubt this is the case, but if it is, then a partial workaround would be not to require customers submit to arbitration, but to offer a discount to those who do. The potential problem with my idea that worries me the most: if a drug company implemented it, then, at least in some states, there might a political backlash rather than customer backlash, with these states swiftly moving to prohibit the endeavor.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Are we falling behind in science?

There's an interesting article in the New Atlantis on American children's relatively poor showing among developed nationed on international math and science tests. It's generally skeptical of the "We're falling behind in science!" meme, pointing out several "confounding factors" (not including the laziness factor) that make international comparisons difficult, and then implying that maybe we're doing too well in some aspects of science education:
The United States is still pumping out tremendous numbers of new Ph.D.s in the sciences—more, in fact, than our economy can presently absorb, as there is a well-reported dearth of jobs for newly-minted science Ph.D.s. The same is true in engineering: According to a recent National Science Foundation report, the number of engineers graduating from U.S. schools will continue to grow into the foreseeable future, outstripping the number of available jobs.
On the other hand, they pithily dismiss "Alarmist media reports [that] often use GDP, against which research spending has fallen, as a comparative baseline," preferring to use the rate of growth of industry research spending and the proportion of federal discretionary spending going to science research. It seems to me that GDP is obviously the more relevant baseline.

They also raise the uncomfortable issue of race:
Two University of Pennsylvania researchers recently aggregated scores from a number of cross-national studies and found that white students in the United States, taken alone, consistently outperform the predominantly white student populations of several other leading industrial nations. “There is compelling evidence,” they write,” that the low scores of [black and Hispanic students] were major factors in reducing the comparative standing of the U.S. in international surveys of achievement. If these minority students were to perform at the same level as white students, the U.S....would lead the Western G5 nations in mathematics and science, though it would still trail Japan.” In PISA, for instance, white students performed above most European countries, whereas black students performed on par with students in Thailand. So while the performance of minority groups in the U.S. does refute the alarmist assertion regarding an across-the-board decline in U.S. schools, it does so in a particularly unfortunate way—namely, it suggests that some American minority groups will be shut out of high-paying jobs as companies look for better-educated workers overseas. Although the most recent TIMSS saw the white-black score gap close slightly, it is almost certain to remain shockingly large in the near future.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Friday, August 19, 2005

Peter Mork argues well against the Cuban embargo, acknowledging its noble intent before making plain its futility and counterproductiveness.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Friday, August 12, 2005

Thursday, August 11, 2005

There's an odd article about religion and evolution by Jacob Weisberg at Slate today. He cites a poll.
According to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject (2004), 45 percent of Americans believe God created human beings in their present form 10,000 years ago, while another 38 percent believe that God directed the process of evolution. Only 13 percent accept the prevailing scientific view of evolution as an unguided, random process.
But then he writes this.
Look at this 1993 NORC survey: In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both—but not many people do.
So what happened to those 38% percent? Next we get this.
In reviewing The Origin of Species in 1860, Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, wrote that the religious view of man as a creature with free will was "utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God."
And what is "the" religious view of man as a creature with free will? Perhaps Weisberg should read the debate between Luther and Erasmus on this subject.

Anyhow, after such odd claims, we get to Weisberg's main point.
To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God, and even Darwinists who call themselves Christians. But the acceptance of evolution diminishes religious belief in aggregate for a simple reason: It provides a better answer to the question of how we got here than religion does.
But where is the social science demonstrating that "acceptance of evolution diminishes religious belief in aggregate"? How do we know the causality doesn't go the other way for most people? Weisberg only offers the anecdotal evidence of Charles Darwin's loss of faith and of opposition to evolution by some religious leaders.

Consider again the 38% of Americans that claim to believe "God directed evolution." Why hasn't evolution undermined their faith? The argument for atheism implicit in Weisberg's article can be (over)simplified to the following three steps.
1) Cite modern science.
2) Apply Occam's razor.
3) Throw God away with the rest of the shavings.
Even if (2) doesn't get you stuck in philosophical shoals, you may still fail to achieve (3). If you believe in a miracle, then (3) doesn't follow from (1) and (2). For someone like me, who believes in the resurrection of Christ, (1) and (2) could easily lead to "God directed evolution," so I'm not surprised that 38% of Americans believe that. To continue the argument for atheism with me, one would need to delve into historical evidence regarding Christ; evolution wouldn't be relevant. Even for a Christian who interprets Genesis as saying that God created the universe a few thousand years ago, which is more likely, that arguments for evolution (not to mention modern geology and astrophysics) would lead to him to doubt God, or that such arguments would lead him to revise his interpretation of Genesis?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

I'm really surprised it never before occurred to me that this variable needs to be controlled for.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A quite informative analysis of Saudi royal politics (hat tip: Econbrowser).

Update: Amusingly, there is some controversy about birthdates. According to the post linked to above, Abdullah was born in 1921, Sultan in 1928, Nayef in 1934. According to this WSJ piece, the Saudi royals routinely lie about their ages, and it's actually Abullah - 1923, Sultan - 1924, and Nayef - 1933.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Why don't European Muslims assimilate as well as ours?

Posner argues that European labor market regulations are contributory to the threat of violent Islamism, and Becker agrees, but can't explain the seeming counterexample of the recent London bombings:
As Posner emphasizes, most immigrants, non-Muslim as well as Muslim, feel far more accepted in the United States than in Europe, are less segregated here in both their living arrangements and employment, and appear to advance more easily toward higher level jobs. As a result, they are less promising material for radical Islam, although clearly radicals are operating and planning in the United States as well as in Europe.

However, the British experience is somewhat disturbing to this thesis, for Great Britain is at least a partial counter example to our analysis. For British labor markets are very much like those in the United States; in fact, Britain has lower unemployment rates than the U.S., has equal labor market flexibility, and provides above ground jobs for Muslims and other immigrants.

I believe the main reason for the difference with the United States is that new immigrants are easily accepted in this country since it is a nation of present or past immigrants. Foreigners of all kinds have never been so welcome in Britain, and are even less welcome in continental Europe. So even under the best of economic conditions, immigrants in Europe do not easily integrate into the general society. Still I confess these vicious attacks on London subways and buses are not only awful, but I also find them difficult to understand. (italics added)
I agree with David Ignatius' understanding of the bombings as a revolt of priviledge. Bad economic policies only explain a fraction, and I suspect a rather small fraction, of violent Islamism among immigrants to the West.

It's harder to discount Becker's thesis that America is uniquely friendly to immigrants and therefore uniquely resistent to radicalization of its Muslim immigrants. I really don't know how much explanatory power this idea has. Allow me to throw out another conjecture I'm quite unsure about. Is American popular culture more socially conservative than its European counterparts, thus aiding American assimilation by being less offensive to Muslims? Is such an effect is present, then what effect has the greater presence of Christianity in American culture?

Another claim I've often read is that Europeans can't assimilate their immigrants as well as we can because they aren't as proud of their heritage. (This claim is often expressed as a condemnation of multiculturalism, not for its love of other cultures, but for its hatred of Western culture.) This claim is intuitively plausible to me, and I've read of polls showing that America is an exceptionally patriotic nation. Could it explain most of the variance between the frequency of American Muslims becoming terrorists and that of European Muslims becoming terrorists? If pressed for a quantifiable conjecture, I'd say that at least a third of the variance is so explained.

Finally, are American Muslims simply more diverse then European Muslims, and therefore less able to maintain a large, insular subculture susceptible to infection by violent radicalism? Below I present some data quantifying how American Muslims are more ethnically diverse than British Muslims. (There is also anecdotal evidence.) However, I really don't know how much this variance in diversity can explain the variance in assimilation between American and British Muslims.

Here's some results from a CAIR survey.
Mosques Grouped According to Dominant Ethnic Groups*

27% African American
28% South Asian
15% Arab
16% Mixed evenly South Asian and Arab
14% All Other Combinations

*Dominate [sic] groups are calculated by: 35-39 percent of participants in one group and all other groups less than 20%; 40-49 percent of one group and all others less than 30; 50-59 percent of one group and all others less than 40; any group over 55%. *Mixed groups calculated by two groups with at least 30 percent of participants each.
Another result is that only 24% of American mosques are 90% one ethnic group. My cursory search didn't find a comparable survey of European mosques. However, I can compare the ethnic breakdowns of American and British Muslims. America Muslims are 32% South Asian, 26% Arab, 20% African American, and 22% other (cite here; article not free online). In contrast, from here one reads that "almost three quarters" of British Muslims originate from South Asia. (More specifically, the of the Muslims counted by 2001 British Census, 687,592 were Pakistani, 261,833 were Bangladeshi, and 133,783 were Indian.)

Update: Posner also mentions that welfare benefits are more generous in Europe than in America. Mickey Kaus has also found anecdotal relations between welfare and terrorism. He concludes that "extreme anti-social terrorist ideologies (radical Islam, in particular) seem to breed in 'oppositional' cultures supported by various government welfare benefits." Welfare benefits don't exactly fall under the "labor market regulations" category that this post started out with; they're government transfers. As for their explanatory power, I'd attribute to them at least a small fraction of the variance, but I won't make a stronger conjecture because the London bombings still are much better explained in terms of Ignatius' revolt of privilege: for example, one of the bombers "had just received a red Mercedes from his dad."

Matthew Dowd's priorities

Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief campaign strategist in 2004, argues that "chances are that there will be a substantial decrease in illegal immigration from Mexico in the next 20 years" because of declining population growth in Mexico. He claims this "suggests that any long-term project to close off the United States-Mexico border may use up money that could be more useful elsewhere." Dowd is right about the demographics, about which I've posted previously.

What about the second part of Dowd's argument? Well, Dowd himself undercuts it: "Does the United States need to continue to worry about border security and terrorism? Absolutely." Alas, Dowd doesn't explain how we can have border security if we don't even know who is crossing our borders. It seems to me that meaningful border security requires either meaningful enforcement of our immigration laws, or making immigration legal for essentially every Mexican with verifiable identification. Dowd doesn't support the first option:
legislators and government agencies should spend more time and resources addressing the problems of immigrants already here and our direct security needs, and much less time on prescriptive laws aimed at stemming illegal immigration from Mexico.
Dowd is also not proposing the second option, leading me to conclude that Dowd cares more about protecting illegal immigration than about protecting our borders. Is Dowd unofficially speaking for Bush?