Turned back by force, not turning back by choice.

In his column today, Michael Gerson wrote a disheveled mess on our society’s improvement, allegedly at the hands of government and morals.

On cultural issues, conservatives have been ambushed by hope. …

We’ve had 8 years of hope and 7 years of compassion from our government. The primary results we have to show for it: oral sex in the Oval Office, a never-ending war based on lies, discriminatory laws and amendments, torture by Americans, and a national debt that grows by $500,000,000,000 per year. I’ll accept the word “ambushed”, although we should know better by now. But I’d nix the nonsense about “hope” and government policy.

Still, there’s no amount of change that Gerson can’t attribute to hope expressed through government:

First, societies can, over time, recognize their own self-destructive tendencies and reassert old norms — not just arresting decline but even reversing it. Many Americans, for example, have seen the damaging effects of divorce on children — sometimes from the firsthand perspective of their own childhoods — and divorce rates, especially among upper-income couples, have fallen. …

I’d like to see his data on this. Does staying in a bad marriage harm children? Is it all about the children, or about the sanctity of marriage? Argue either, but don’t mix the two without admitting as much. Rather than seeing divorce rates decline because we’ve seen the harm it does to children, it requires an easier assumption that the age when individuals get married suggests that they’re more mature and developed into people who understand themselves and can co-exist in a stable relationship. Correlation is not causation.

Gerson continues:

… Over the decades the social wreckage of drug use has become undeniable — and the social judgment on this practice has shifted from “stylish rebellion” to “suicidal idiocy.” In many cases, our culture has benefited from the natural healing mechanism of simple sanity¹.

It’s also undeniable that much of the social wreckage is a direct result of government action against drug use, not the drug use itself. The blame does not rest entirely with the user. Surely the moralizer can accept his share.

Also, among my peers, drug use, particularly marijuana, is not seen as stylish rebellion or suicidal idiocy. It’s seen as fun and harmless, a conclusion derived from multiple experiences. I have not tried any recreational drug, as I’ve written before. I don’t even drink. But I understand that my preference isn’t necessarily everyone else’s.

Still, hope overcomes:

Wehner and Levin find that the law of unintended consequences, unlike the law of gravity, admits large exceptions.

Stop and re-read that sentence. I have no doubt that Gerson wins the Internets’ “Stupidest Statement of the Day” award.

What Wehner and Levin actually wrote in their essay, “Crime, Drugs, Welfare — and Other Good News“, the basis for Gerson’s argument²:

There will always be unintended consequences, but even these need not always be for the worse, and the prospect of such unintended consequences should not paralyze us from taking action.

Unintended consequences can be positive. I don’t think there’s any half-intelligent person who would deny this. But they are unintended. Gerson seems so determined to enact government solutions that he’s willing to pretend that it’s possible to design perfect government policies – with only lollipops and rainbows – if we just have enough hope about what government can do. The mere suggestion is absurd but more so the practice, as evidenced by the handiwork of politicians throughout history.

There’s a name for Gerson’s essay: the Care Bear Stare.

¹ Gerson should be a little more consistent about the “healing mechanism of simple sanity”. I recall him actively embracing insanity in June.

² Unlike Gerson, Wehner and Levin seem to place less emphasis on government’s role, noting that the declining divorce rate only appears among the well-educated, upper-income couples. Gerson’s logic implies that poorer people with less education don’t care about the harm to their children. No doubt, he can think of a government program or twenty that might fix that.

Stitches will only heal one of them.

Remember, surgical risk exists in every cut:

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, leader of the powerful Lithuanian religious movement, served as godfather at a Jerusalem brit Wednesday but suffered a deep cut to his hand, apparently when the mohel slipped.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the blade missed the rabbi’s hand and caused a deep(er) cut in the boy. Is it hard to believe that wasn’t possible?

The 97-year-old sage received stitches and was declared well. The baby was unharmed.

The last sentence is not correct. The baby was harmed, but only as intended. That’s supposed to make it acceptable. It doesn’t.

Build the proper framework or beware the outcome.

Perhaps he should work on his marketing technique:

MEANS-TESTING GAINS in both parties as long-term entitlement fix.

Republican Sen. Ensign of Nevada pushes plan to charge affluent beneficiaries more for Medicare prescription-drug coverage. “It makes no sense for Bill Gates’s father to have his prescription drugs paid for by a schoolteacher or a firefighter or a police officer,” the senator says.

Why is the reference here to Bill Gates’s father? I’m all for the basic message of means testing government entitlement payments, but how is suggesting that a son should financially take care of his father any more enlightened than suggesting government should take care of him? Neither example expects the individual to provide for himself. Of course Bill Gates should pay for his own prescriptions, but his money has no bearing on the political legitimacy of his father’s claim to government benefits.

Link via Megan McArdle.

More Joe Isuzu than Apple Macintosh

Andrew Sullivan questions the wisdom of using the format of Apple’s recent Mac campaign to promote government over the free market. The ad:

I guess the Center for American Progress thinks it’s being hip with this ad, but I’m too busy focusing on the propaganda, as if the argument for smaller government centers around a selfish desire to screw over as many people as possible if it can earn any extra profit. Right.

But the government is a force for good. It is wise. Need proof? From the Center for American Progress’ front page, a story on farm subsidies:

Many of these subsidies distort prices, encourage overproduction, and leave small farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries unable to compete in agriculture—a critical sector of the global economy for sustainable development and poverty reduction.

The supposedly benevolent government is creating this through its power to pick winners and losers. It’s irrational to think the answer is to make the government more encompassing in the belief that more money and more power will somehow make it more honest and less destructive. Picking small winners is still picking winners.

Does “administer justice” mean “put druggies in jail”?

I received a questionnaire in the mail yesterday informing me that I’ve been randomly selected for juror qualification, and that I may be placed in the pool of potential jurors for the 01/08 – 12/09 term. Exciting, except I can think of few less productive ways for me to spend my time. But it’s required by law. It’s also “one of the cornerstones of our democracy and is an opportunity to help administer justice.” I know, because the letter placed behind the questionnaire told me.

I enjoy question 10:

Should I ask why there’s a part a) and part b) to a multiple-choice question?

I want to know how to inform the government that my ethnicity is my business, so I read the note on the reverse side:

Apart from the missing comma, how is checking ethnicity a greater guarantee of non-discrimination than not looking at it because there is no indication at all? If I’m truly randomly selected for jury duty, the “proper” racial mix among the entire pool will occur if the sample size is large enough. I don’t remember as much from my Statistics class as I’d like, but I remember that. It’d be nice if a Congressman or two could, as well, when they’re busy mandating such foolishness.

P.S. Thanks for sending me a form that requires a No. 2 pencil. I’m 34 and childless. I have dozens of those on my desk just waiting for happy occasions such as this.

This decision tree stops after the first branch.

The last sentence from this article wouldn’t hold up to any level of logical scrutiny, so I’m assuming it received none.

People against circumcision argue that the procedure is an inhumane thing to do to a child because general anesthesia cannot be used on babies because of breathing risks, and local anesthesia causes inflammation, which makes the surgery much more risky.

That’s nowhere near correct or justifiable. I’d edit it thusly, given the equivalent space constraint and intellectual rigidity to the common, non-thinking approach to excusing imposed surgery on another person as a valid religious practice.

People against circumcision argue that the procedure is an inhumane thing to do to a child. because Also, general anesthesia cannot be used on babies because of breathing risks, and local anesthesia causes inflammation, which makes the surgery much more risky.

Would anyone accept the argument for ritually cutting off a child’s fingers if people for the finger amputation of children argue that we can provide anesthesia? The procedure is an inhumane thing to do to a child because it is medically unnecessary surgery on a non-consenting individual. Inhumane treatment doesn’t become humane through better pain management. The lack of proper pain management is an additional inhumane imposition, not the reasoning to explain why circumcision is unethical.

Striking the Free Market

I’ve only followed the current Writers Guild of America strike in passing. Mostly I lament the impending doom that is no new episodes of How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Heroes, Journeyman, House, Pushing Daisies, and The Office. Still, I sympathize with the writers. I think what they’re asking for is fair and at least what I’d want in their position. I wish them luck.

However, they’re to blame for their own mess. This is what happens when unions interfere. The Us vs. Them mentality never succeeds long-term precisely because it creates Us vs. Them as the prevailing narrative. Perhaps management is to blame for the initial escalation. I suspect that’s often true, although I’m basing my assumption on no investigation of facts. The desire to get something for as little as possible is universal. No surprise there.

The writers have something of value, which is why they’re now withholding their services. I don’t care if people want to group themselves together, letting the superior talents of the few balance the lesser talents of the many. Take the successful screenwriter and use her as leverage to get the non-working scriptwriter better compensation. It’s not a deal I’d make, even though I have no illusions that I could be the former in my scenario, as opposed to the latter. But talent is always the biggest bargaining chip. Make a concession on that to pull up those who maybe shouldn’t be in the field and you’ve traded your strength for goodwill. I don’t understand that.

I believe in a market price. In this case, producers have a range within which they’re willing to pay. Writers have a range within which they’re willing to write. Somewhere there’s a deal to be made. Or not. The “or not” is the key. Unionization hampers the realization that someone’s expectations may be broken. As I implied earlier, I think that’s the producers in this case, because it’s reasonable for writers to receive compensation if producers use their work on the Internet or on DVD.

Harold Meyerson (predictably) takes up the WGA cause in today’s column. I could’ve guessed his conclusion before reading the first word, but here’s what he concluded:

Nations with more high-tech economies than our own, such as the Scandinavian states, have upgraded technology and increased productivity in ways that have enhanced, rather than diminished, the bargaining power and lives of their workers. In the United States, by contrast, our corporate elites, sometimes using technological innovation as a pretext for their power grabs, have destroyed workers’ bargaining power and kept for themselves almost all the revenue from technologically driven productivity increases. The picketers at Paramount and Disney may look to be a chorus line of wise-asses, but their struggle is a deadly serious test of whether any American workers retain the clout to strike a deal with the unchecked greed that is the modern American corporation.

Reference to any type of elites disqualifies your argument from serious consideration, in most cases. I’m simply not interested in entertaining conspiracy theories as a default.

That said, Meyerson offers the refutation of his own conclusion a few paragraphs earlier in his essay:

“Our current bargaining agreement doesn’t give us jurisdiction over content written for new media,” says Tony Segall, general counsel of the Writers Guild of America West. A side letter appended in 2001 to the guild’s contract with the studios exempted the studios from having to bargain with the union over the paychecks of writers turning out material for the Web, which the insufficiently futurist leadership of the guild (since replaced) apparently viewed as a distant prospect.

Is this not proof of what can happen when you turn over your individual bargaining power to the unchecked power of another? Leaving aside the reasonableness of the WGA’s demands, they created their own mess through unionization.

Meyerson also provides an example of free market principles, which he uses to explain only corporate greed.

Last year, however, NBC-Universal asked the writers of “The Office” to create two-to-three-minute “webisodes” of the series for the Internet. Though the webisodes drove up the show’s ratings, the studio paid the writers nothing for their work. The writers, not surprisingly, ceased their webisode writing; the guild sought to negotiate for them with NBC-Universal and got nowhere fast; and the issue of the writers’ right to bargain collectively for Internet work became the crux of the writers’ conflict with the studios.

Assuming no pre-existing contractual obligations for web content, won’t the writers have power without a strike to demand payment? I wouldn’t be so silly as to suggest that writers provide the web content for free to generate higher salaries for a show with improved ratings. Actually…

The problem with unions is that they’re not dynamic enough to keep up with the marketplace. They can’t handle innovation in anything other than hindsight. As a result, they create unnecessary problems and constraints. The current situation with the WGA is just further evidence.

Literary Device or Political Argument?

The author (Daniel Ford) of this otherwise interesting review of Duane Shultz’s book Into the Fire uses a bizarre literary device to tie the Allied raid on Ploesti during World War II – the subject of Into the Fire – to current events in Iraq. The opening sentence:

Whereas now we go into combat hoping for zero casualties and regard any loss whatever as proof of unforgivable incompetence, the history of warfare is mostly a chronicle of high casualties and terrible sacrifice.

I initially thought there might be a specific political agenda to this. A little reflection makes me think that it’s more innocent than that, but it’s still strange. Did the United States go into WWII hoping for high casualties and terrible sacrifice? I doubt it, so I don’t think anything changed in the last 66 years. Assuming Mr. Ford meant to imply that we used to suffer casualties beyond what we’d accept or believe today, the device is clumsy.

In the meantime, that single, bootless, 27-minute raid cost the lives or freedom of as many young Americans as 10 months of combat in Iraq.

The comparison is interesting for putting the Ploesti story in context, so I’m willing to believe this is a bizarre-yet-innocent way of comparing the casualty reality. But the setup is unbelievably clumsy.

There’s no major point here. I’m just fascinated as a writer because I would hope I would avoid the type of opening offered in the review. As I contemplate writing more organized essays, I’m looking for examples of what to do and not to do. This stood out.