Writing Pet Peeves

I don’t have time to write any substantive issues this weekend. Instead I’ll just point to this brief explanation to a writing faux pas I’m encountering often enough lately to annoy me.

Although “try and” is common in colloquial speech and will usually pass unremarked there, in writing try to remember to use “try to” instead of “try and.”

Now, about those people who could care less

When theory meets principle and walks by without notice.

I’ve written before that I don’t much care for Mike Gravel’s politics. I’m not changing my mind now that he seeks the Libertarian Party nomination for president. I don’t have faith in the Libertarian Party and who seeks its nomination, but Gravel isn’t a libertarian. (Not to be confused with a Libertarian. Small-l libertarian standards are principled; big-l Libertarian standards don’t appear quite so principled.) Kip makes this point very well today at A Stitch in Haste, as well as in the comments section to today’s earlier post on libertarianism. So I’ll leave that specific news free from further comment.

Instead, I want to point to point out a common, mistaken critique of libertarians that demonstrates the critic has not sought out an understanding of libertarianism before rejecting it. From The New Skeptic (via The Liberty Papers):

Libertarians have a serious image problem, and people like Gravel and Ron Paul have not helped. Besides that, the Randians (oh no a word I just made up!) are in that “big tent” and stink the whole thing up. People who are serious but realistic about small government and civil liberties want nothing to do with the kooks. It’s one thing to say, for instance, that the Commerce Clause is a strict limit on congressional power; it’s another to formulate a reasonable interpretation of that provision while dealing with and changing the system currently in place. Getting rid of the FDA overnight = kooky; not just kooky, but intellectually immature. Criticism is not the final step in political theory, and if libertarians cannot construct a viable ideological system from the rubble of rejected ideas, then they offer nothing worth overhauling our government for.

I’m by no means the reasonable first source for information on the foundational political theory of libertarianism. I’m too new for that, although I consider my grasp sufficiently robust for most discussions. Still, I’m sure there are countless examples around The Internets similar to what I wrote this morning:

But libertarians are generally smart enough to realize that we aren’t qualified to design a government program. (No one is, libertarian or not.) The prediction guides the desire not to plan. There are government plans, of course, unless one moves beyond a minarchist approach into anarcho-capitalism. And they will most likely not work as planned. We are smart but we are not the next Nostradamus. We remember that our first objective is the maximization of individual liberty. Thus, we seek to limit government to the barest necessity, to wreck as little as possible.

Small-l libertarians criticize government programs not because the aims are somehow lacking in nobility or necessity. The aims are often objectively worthwhile on some scale of measurement. Considering the FDA, no one wants dangerous drugs floating around in the marketplace. Snake-oil masquerading as a cure for cancer is a poor outcome. But the means of government are very often inferior at their best and destructive at their worst. Small-l libertarians understand this.

That does not mean libertarians don’t, won’t or can’t design private solutions, or at the very least advocate for private solutions to objectively identifiable problems. The New Skeptic criticizes libertarians for not having a practical roadmap for dismantling a government program overnight, yet does not provide an example of a libertarian impractically suggesting such an approach. I don’t doubt they exist, but it’s reasonable to expect an example.

To the specific criticism, of course dismantling government bureaucracy overnight is not realistic. But the government has created the situation where this cannot be done. It has destroyed the private market’s incentive to solve the problem independently because it has the power of law and the force of guns to require its solution. The lack of alternatives to government might not be attributable to unwillingness or indifference. Government monopoly is a significant disincentive to to private innovation.

Free of government intrusion, solutions evolve rather than spontaneously appear. Humans fail and humans learn. From that repetitive process comes a refined solution. But the argument here dismisses libertarianism because its advocates allegedly claim they are capable of performing the equivalent of taking a particle of carbon and giving a human without the many evolutionary steps in between. That’s a test designed to make libertarianism fail.

The shorter version is that humans can be flawed, hence the libertarian distrust of placing too much power in a concentrated group of humans. But the flaws of an advocate do not indict the principles he advocates.

Quote of the Day: Yesterday Edition

Megan McCardle sums up the libertarianism approach to governing:

“It won’t work” is the easiest prediction to get right; almost nothing does. The thought process that tells you something probably won’t work is not always a good way to figure out what will, even if you were right for the right reasons, as I agree lots of people were. That’s why libertarians have a great track record at predicting which government programs will fail (almost all of them) and a lousy track record at designing ones that do work.

But libertarians are generally smart enough to realize that we aren’t qualified to design a government program. (No one is, libertarian or not.) The prediction guides the desire not to plan. There are government plans, of course, unless one moves beyond a minarchist approach into anarcho-capitalism. And they will most likely not work as planned. We are smart but we are not the next Nostradamus. We remember that our first objective is the maximization of individual liberty. Thus, we seek to limit government to the barest necessity, to wreck as little as possible.

Ignore the government mandate that created a duopoly. Scream MONOPOLY!

I haven’t posted on Monday’s long-anticipated decision from the Justice Department on the proposed Sirius-XM merger because I didn’t have much to add to the announcement. (It’s also not the final hurdle, so over-analysis, to say nothing of celebration, would be premature.) But Steven Pearlstein’s column is worth dissecting.

The latest example of a government bailout of a troubled industry has nothing to do with Bear Stearns. It is, instead, the Justice Department’s decision to give the green light to the merger of the satellite radio companies XM and Sirius.

It’s already clear that his position will be staked on rhetoric rather than principles. While it’s good to know that from the beginning, it’s bad economics. The goal of Pearlstein’s idea of competition is not to discover winners and losers other winners, but to pick the correct winners and losers. As he makes clear, that means consumers must win and businesses must lose.

For the past several years, these two companies have been competing so hard for talent, distribution channels and customers that neither has been able to turn a profit, and probably wouldn’t have for years. Consumers have been the big winners, with great programming at affordable prices.

Any cursory look at financial results demonstrates that consumers aren’t winning in a vacuum. At least with respect to Sirius, its cash flow is improving. This matters to a growing company more than bottom-line profitability. But why should we expect such an acknowledgment from a business columnist?

All that is about to change now that the Bush administration has concluded that we’ll all be better off if these heretofore fierce rivals are allowed to stop competing and concentrate instead on reducing costs, paring down their combined offerings and finally delivering profit to their shareholders.

This reveals the problem in Pearlstein’s analysis. In setting up the satellite auction that led to the creation of Sirius and XM, the government decided that exactly two competitors was the best approach. It depended on an assumption that two could compete effectively. It ruled out the possibility for a third (or fourth or fifth or …) to compete, possibly encouraging a different development of the market. It ignored the idea that human involvement might take it in a different direction than the ideal world envisioned by the sages at the FCC. And now that reality has messed with the centralized planning, the only response is to knew what it was doing, facts be damned. That’s not convincing.

More importantly, what new innovations in the business will arrive if the combined companies don’t need to waste resources on two ’80s channels, two popular country channels, or two channels carrying C-Span? I trust competition with other competing forms of entertainment to drive the outcome because I don’t pretend to know what is best.

Pearlstein disagrees, going so far as to analogize a combined Sirius-XM to a combined Coke-Pepsi. Yet, I don’t drink either, so I’m fairly certain humans don’t need them to live. Perhaps the availability of alternatives to non-necessities puts pressure on those evil, profit-maximizing corporations. Instead, Pearlstein deems it reasonable to argue that consumers should have ideal conditions for any and all requests. Anything that helps the corporation must, by definition, harm the consumer. It must be regulated, if not stopped.

He uses interesting logic to get there:

… You would particularly want … vigilance in the case of a government-sanctioned duopoly, which is how the Federal Communications Commission viewed XM and Sirius when it granted only two licenses for satellite radio.

This irrational faith in the wisdom of government planning is matched only by his absurdity in arguing that Sirius and XM might develop substitutes for each other if forced to compete.

It makes no allowance for the possibility that, if you force the two companies to compete, XM might come up with a morning host who is funnier and more outrageous than Howard Stern. Or Sirius, lacking a Major League Baseball offering, might take a chance on World Cup soccer or college lacrosse and tap into a whole new audience that nobody knew existed. The prospects for that kind of innovation will be greatly reduced after XM and Sirius merge and the combined company focuses on protecting its existing hit channels rather than creating new ones to displace them.

As if college lacrosse will compete with Major League Baseball. Pearlstein looks at the possibilities (allegedly) eliminated from a merger while ignoring the tangible benefits customers already receive. He also dismisses the notion that the possibility that customers will leave if the channel lineup bores them won’t be an incentive to innovate. He ignores that “free” radio is already following the exact path he fears satellite radio will take and ignores the innovations that satellite radio has given and can continue to give as a combined company. (Uncensored Howard Stern counts as an improvement, as does national access to sports broadcasts.) But why worry about details when this story can just be twisted into another screed concluding that the Bush Administration wants to screw the proletariat at every opportunity?

The FCC should immediately match the Department of Justice’s decision and let the merger proceed.

(Disclosure: I’m a Sirius shareholder and customer. I’ve been an XM shareholder and customer in the past. I also desperately want XM’s Major League Baseball with Sirius’ Howard Stern. Economics and free market competition are still the reasons I support the merger.)

Science requires evidence that faith can’t provide.

This British article on circumcision demonstrates several typical lapses in critical thinking. These lapses are usually based in a refusal to consider that actions against children are subject to ethical concerns. That fits these examples. First:

One part of the country that is moving quickly in this direction is Walsall, where the local hospital now offers a weekend male-circumcision clinic. “We have a large Muslim community here,” says Dr Sam Ramaiah, director of public health for Walsall Primary Care Trust, “and we wanted to provide local children with a service that is safe and secure. The procedure takes place in hospital with local anaesthetic and is done by a trained surgeon. The advantage is that there is care available in case of complications and, if necessary, the child can stay in.

The possibility of complications demands that circumcision be medically indicated based on need when the patient can’t consent. It may be more civilized to offer this service so that children may have their genitals cut in a “safe” environment, but it is not civilized. And it’s not equal; the same concession is not made to parents for cutting the genitals of their female children. Ethics – morality – requires more than good intentions and a clean operating room.


If there was any hint that there was a physical or psychological problem it would have been suspended centuries ago, something that has happened to other practices in Judaism. And indeed things have changed already. Nowadays we will use only mohelim [people who perform ritual Jewish circumcision] who are doctors. We always use anaesthetic cream. If there is anything that indicates that we should delay the circumcision we will delay it,” [Rabbi Jonathan Romain] says.

The ethical demand from a lack of medical necessity indicates that we should delay the circumcision, so clearly Rabbi Romain is mistaken. But he mistakenly does not accept that fact, so I’ll move to his specific point.

“We’re modern, so we would not continue doing something harmful. We are incapable of it because we are modern. Someone, somewhere, would’ve stopped this if it was bad.” This idea is a typical fallacy that relies on an arrogance founded in the rejection of self-examination. It rejects the science of medicine as an ongoing quest, preferring instead an unstated belief that we know all we may know. Unfortunately, it also relies on knowing only what we want to know.

How long did medical science accept blood-letting as a cure? Have we mostly abandoned the practice now in favor of new understanding? Should men and women of science ceased progress by assuming that progress had reached its pinnacle?

Being a doctor requires ethics, but even in the absence of ethics, science provides the answers to the objective questions. Removing the foreskin is an objective change in the genitals. Cutting is objective harm. (Rabbi Romain proves this, since anesthetic cream would be unnecessary if cutting wasn’t objective harm.) When there is no medical indication for doing cutting, all that remains is the subjective evaluation of the benefits versus the costs of genital cutting. The doctor (and parents) are not qualified under any circumstance to conclude in favor of cutting when the child’s genitals are healthy. All arguments regarding benefits are irrelevant.

Only his left eye sees the future.

Sen. Obama was prescient in the current mortgage problem. I’d be more impressed if it had happened in March 2005, or even 2006. But it’s still worth noting.

Also worth noting is what he leaves out of his assessment of the problem. In filling out a standard critique against lenders, he can’t find a single word against borrowers. Sen. Obama does not suggest that borrowers might lie. He does not suggest that they had a duty to understand the terms of their mortgage contracts before signing. Any looming crisis would arise only from insufficient due diligence or outright deception by the lender.

It’s time to move forward to 1791.


In an unusually aggressive step, Fox Broadcasting yesterday refused to pay a $91,000 indecency fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission for an episode of a long-canceled reality television show, even as the network fights two other indecency fines in the Supreme Court.

Despite the sharp reduction, Fox said it would not pay the fine on principle, calling it “arbitrary and capricious, inconsistent with precedent, and patently unconstitutional” in a statement released yesterday.

There is no compelling government interest in preventing whipped-cream-covered nipples on television. There is possibly a compelling parental interest in preventing their children from seeing whipped-cream-covered nipples on television. (This possibility is why the networks may have a compelling business interest to refrain from showing whipped-cream-covered nipples on television.) But it’s clear that the First Amendment really isn’t as complicated as we make it in aiming to protect our precious children. Unlike this sentiment:

“We believe in enforcing indecency standards, especially when children are watching,” said FCC spokeswoman Mary Diamond.

I’ll leave the question of “standards” alone, particularly the clarity of those rules. But the first question to that is obvious: how does the government know when children are watching? If nothing else, with the expansion of cable television and the rapid development of the Internet, any prior claims that FCC censorship mattered are now moot.

17 hours, 4 airports, 3 cities, ⅓ baseball game

I’ve journeyed to Clearwater, Florida every March since 2001 for Phillies Spring Training. I’ve slowly increased my time for each visit, seeing as many as four games. For multiple competing interests not interesting to anyone, I couldn’t make an extended trip this year. But I needed to go. My streak matters, but I’m more interested in the joy I get from the games. I had to figure out a way to go. Enter nearly-unusable frequent flier miles on US Airways.

Saturday morning, I boarded a plane at 6:30 leaving National, bound for Tampa. Seventeen hours later, my plane landed at Dulles. Sandwiched inside that time, I enjoyed three innings of baseball before the skies opened up for good, raining out the only exhibition game I could see this year. I loved it.

But first, I got to watch my favorite current Phillie, Chris Coste, play.

And since it appears difficult to find any decent recap of the three innings of a meaningless game that didn’t count, my personal system of keeping score. The Tigers:

And the Phillies:

Notice that Coste drove in the only run in the non-game with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly (to deep center). I enjoyed that, but not as much as I enjoyed the randomness of my only day at Spring Training coinciding with the book signing at the stadium for Chris Coste’s new book, . In a lucky turn of events, the rain pushed the signing to 3:30 rather than the estimated 4:30 or later if the game hadn’t ended in a rainout. That left me a comfortable margin so I wouldn’t miss my flight.

Mission accomplished.

Post Script: For Tigers fans, here’s the unfortunate outcome of this meaningless non-game for you, Curtis Granderson’s broken hand:

Brandon Inge in center doesn’t sound like an enviable short-term solution.

Our gender discrimination permits this immoral argument.

Following on previous entries regarding female genital mutilation, John Tierney updates the conversation with an opinion from Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, “a native of Sierra Leone, who grew up in America and then went back to her homeland as an adult to undergo the rite along with fellow members of the Kono ethnic group.” I’m not impressed with Dr. Ahmadu’s reasoning.

I also take note of readers’ concerns about consent. While I have serious issues with the concept of consent and how it is applied asymmetrically to African practices of female genital cutting, I do agree with Rick Shweder that a possible way forward would be to consider limiting certain types of genital cutting to an age of majority, for instance, the age at which a girl can consent to marriage, abortion or to cosmetic surgery. A minor procedure can be allowed for girls under the age of consent, as is the case with infant male circumcision. Defining what such a minor procedure would entail and what might be the appropriate ages of consent is an important step that must include the voices of the “silent majority” of women who are affected.

The way forward is to look for solutions that would empower women (and men) to choose what to do with their own bodies. …

My position is “pro-choice” on any form of female and male genital modifications (with the exception of minor cuts, such as circumcisions of male and female prepuce discussed above) and a complete rejection of the motto “zero-tolerance of FGM”. …

That’s an interesting notion of choice. Dr. Ahmadu conflates the prerogative of a cultural group¹ to exclude those who do not conform to its rituals with permission to require inclusion through involuntary participation among those who reject its rituals. This ignores the real issue, the use of force on a healthy, non-consenting individual.

Pro-choice should mean what it implies, which is complete consent or refusal. There are no other valid competing interests on the individual when critiquing elective genital surgery. If the person agrees, for whatever reason, it is his or her choice. If the person does not agree, for whatever reason, it is forced. If the person cannot consent, for whatever reason, the assumption must be that he or she would not. Force violates his or her rights as an individual to self-ownership. Permitting force relegates the body part(s) under consideration to property status, possessed without limitation by another. That can never be right.

Introducing subjective qualifications (i.e. minor cuts) is then a diversionary tactic based on a relativist notion of what people should not mind based on the good opinion of others. It is not a principle that recognizes the individual. It rejects a coherent conception of human rights.

Dr. Ahmadu’s minor is my major. Her blessing of my forced circumcision as a cultural rite is irrelevant to the point of offensiveness. I believe in choice. She believes in choice, unless force is necessary to achieve her outcome.

Post Script: Dr. Shweder contributed a comment to the discussion suggesting a curious denial of some of the earlier counterpoints made throughout the threads. I offered a new rebuttal here.

¹ Do not read this as a synonym for government. No government has such authority, nor do citizens possess a right to use government to exclude citizens from society.

It’s not a “deal” if I don’t get to refuse.

Harold Meyerson’s column in today’s Washington Post is propaganda. It is so obviously biased in its consideration of facts and creation of myths that any other conclusion is impossible. Any essay that begins with this:

Putting together everything we’ve learned over the past 10 days about high finance in Manhattan, one thing is clear: If Eliot Spitzer had saved all the money he apparently paid”Kristen” and her co-workers at the Emperors Club, he could have bought Bear Stearns.

… derives from a partisan ever-interested in stuffing the events of the day through to his predetermined conclusion. In Meyerson’s case, that’s always some derivative of how government must act more, control more, and protect more. His political mind is one giant Care Bear Stare at the problem du jour.

Today, he’s concerned with workers.

The key lesson Americans need to learn from today’s troubles is how to distinguish faux prosperity from the genuine article. Over the past hundred years, we’ve experienced both. In the three decades after World War II we had the real thing. Led by our manufacturing sector, productivity increased at a rapid clip and median family incomes rose at a virtually identical rate. The value of the American work product grew significantly and that value was shared with American workers.

That value that’s shared with workers is generally referred to as a salary. Unless workers have stopped receiving salaries for the work they do, this argument is sophistry. Meyerson isn’t interested in anything more than pushing anti-capitalist, anti-corporate class warfare.

In the broadest sense, the American economy over the past three decades has been powered by ever more ingenious extensions of credit to a people whose incomes were going nowhere, unless they were in the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. There were some limits, as a result of New Deal regulations, on how old-line banks could extend credit, but investment banks and other institutions not legally obliged to keep a certain amount of cash in reserve operated under no such constraints. The risk was that one day, burdened by debt and static incomes, American homeowners would have trouble making their payments and the house of cards would come tumbling down. But what were the odds of that?

His entire argument is built on the italicized statement. To work, he needs both a conspiracy by his enemy class and a lack of self-control within his comrades in arms spending. The former is a pathetic assumption not worth consideration. The latter is worth a simple demolition.

When I bought my house, I had a set income with a projected path of growth. For consistency within Meyerson’s frame, I’ll remove the assumption of growth. I also had a (declining) amount of debt consisting of my car and my education. I took on a fixed-rate mortgage for approximately half the amount a bank would’ve given me in 2005. I’ll also assume what a bank would offer me now is less than what it would’ve offered me in 2005, although it would no doubt still cover my original mortgage with a comfortable margin. My (assumed stagnant) income covered my obligations.

How is “burdened by debt and static incomes” relevant, as opposed to poor judgment and financial forecasting by consumers (and financial institutions)? Meyerson sees only the parenthetical and assumes that amounts to conspiracy. And oppression. The notion is biased.

Meyersons demands are unsurprising. I wonder if he wrote this paragraph first.

Pretty good, it turns out. And out of this debacle emerge two paramount lessons for our highest-ranking policymakers: Regulate the American financial sector, which is now turning to the government for a bailout. And commit the government to doing all in its power to generate broad-based prosperity, through laws enabling workers to bargain collectively, through a massive public commitment to projects “greening” the economy, through provision of universal health coverage and affordable college educations.

The lesson from Bear Stearns is that we need the government to give us broad-based prosperity through a massive public commitment to boilerplate progressive talking points. Yep, further buffering Americans from the costs of their financial decisions is exactly what we need, lest they learn to exercise the self-control Meyerson knows they do not possess because they’ve been conspired against by the goal of oppression executed by our financial elite.

But, if I may, a question. When the government makes a college education more affordable, should it regulate who may study finance, and which branches of finance, since its eventual practice carries the risk of unleashing more evil on workers?