Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Glass Ceiling

Much of the hand-wringing over the debt ceiling misses a rather important point (or sometimes counts on it): We don't raise the debt ceiling so that we can pay back what we've borrowed; we raise the debt ceiling so that we can borrow more. When Treasury Secretary Geithner says that failure to raise the ceiling will result in U.S. Government default and global economic catastrophe, he's spreading an untruth.

What would happen? The Treasury can come up with ways to keep federal spending going until next fall. After that, tax revenues are still many times greater than needed to finance the debt. What they aren't great enough to do is finance the debt and pay for everything the government is obliged to pay for. That means that Social Security payments might be deferred, the oft-threatened cuts to Medicare payments to physicians might actually happen, or the government would have to shut down some services. The courts would have to decide who is owed what first, but my guess is that the repayment of debt would be near the top of the list.

The bottom line is that failure to raise the debt ceiling almost certainly won't cause default. What it will cause is a lot of Americans not getting government checks - pay checks, reimbursements, Social Security, transfers - and political Hell of the highest order. Hence I think Tea Partiers, the GOP and Geithner are all bluffing. It makes for interesting drama, though.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hating "Skins"

The commotion over MTV’s Skins generally misses the sad truth of that show. Our youth won’t be corrupted by MTV. “Kiddie porn” isn’t a well-defined category. Making Viacom scream “uncle” over this show won’t be a victory for decency and good taste.

Skins is a symptom, not the disease. Lance that boil and the infection remains.

Economists use “revealed preferences” to study human desire. We know better than to ask what you like; people lie. If we really want to know what you value, we’ll look at what you buy.

The sad truth of Skins is that we asked for it. Perhaps you didn’t, but your neighbors did. They started asking years ago, even before they expressed shock but were still titillated that Brook Shields let nothing come between her and her Calvins, nothing at all.

Teens and children are sexualized all the time. The parents of the pouting little sex-pots of Toddlers and Tiaras might deny it, but they make of their children objects and extensions of their own desires. Cheerleaders perform for the titillation of the boys and men in the stands. Movies and TV shows that focus on teens are full of sexuality, much of it more explicit than was in the first episode of Skins. The difference is that they have adult actors rather than minors playing those sexually charged roles.

If our concern with Skins is that the actors are minors, we deceive ourselves with legalisms. If our concern is that it’s aimed at minors (and it clearly is; MTV’s claim that the show is for adults is laughable), we forget about the other shows and games we direct at minors. If we hate it for its moral and intellectual vacuity, we forget that it’s barely a step away from Ferris Bueller and Risky Business.

We’ve bought and paid for Skins. It’s ours.

Cultures and societies usually get what they deserve. We claim to hate toxic political speech, but a quick glance at the comments to news stories and political commentary shows that many of us prefer cutting come-backs to reflective discussion. Snide and snark are all the rage on TV. We don’t like our politicians, but who voted for them? We say we like Masterpiece Theater, but Snookies dominate the airwaves.

Skins might be toned down or forced from the airwaves, but it’s what our culture deserves. If we want it to be otherwise, we should demand better and buy better.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Human rights hypocrisy

The visit of China's President Hu has raised some awkward questions about human rights. As just about everyone with a computer has pointed out, last year's Nobel peace laureate got to host the man who's imprisoned this years laureate. And as has also been pointed out, Nobel peace prizes aren't what they used to be (and they never really were), so maybe it's no big deal.

Still, what should our government do about human rights? Stand up for them all the time, or only when it's easy? Punish nations that violate them (is that why we've inflicted on ourself the penance of the Obama Administration?) or trade with them? While Tunisia was useful as a secular Arab state and enemy of Al Qaeda, we ignored the brutality of its government. Egypt is a strategic partner, so don't get excited about Mubarak breaking a few fingers. If a central Asian country helps us out in Afghanistan, it must be just like Oregon but with yurts and mutton-kebabs.

We have to understand that national human rights efforts will always be hypcritical. As America moves throughtout the world, it can always punish the weak and the useless but must always engage the powerful, the dangerous and the useful. I suppose we should just be glad the French aren't torturing Algerians anymore; we're never quite certain whether we want to engage them or start eating "freedom fries."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Heated rhetoric

Well, my TWTC comments on Palin and Giffords seem to have struck some nerves. I don't get many comments on my columns, but that one so far has generated 73. The annoying thing to me is that so many of them reflect either a failure to read carefully or a complete misunderstanding of my intent. And here I always thought that my writing was quite clear.

A number of people assume I'm saying there's no link between Palin's rhetoric (and that graphic with the crosshairs that's been so widely discussed) and political violence. I make no such assumption. I merely point out that no link has been established in this case. The assault on Palin is therefor a matter of politics, not justice or genuine outrage over what happened in Tucson. If a friend is killed by a drunk driver and I respond by attacking my neighbor the known drinker and shrieking that he has blood on his hands, I'm reacting emotionally or politically, not out of desire to bring justice to whomever killed my friend. It may be that alcohol advertising is to blame for some drunk driving, but if the particular driver was an illiterate who never saw a beer commercial, then a campaign against alcohol advertising is dishonest if it uses him as the poster-boy.

If people want to end the vitriol in political speech, they might try being less hate-driven in their speech about Palin.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A hate crime

The shooting in Arizona, the deaths and the wounding of Rep. Giffords are sad, and the political vitriol so common in America is disgusting, but to say that there's a connection between the two without demonstrating a connection between them is intellectual and moral laziness of the first degree. So many commentators just know that the two are linked via Sarah Palin, even if we can't show that Jaren Loughner followed, liked or even listened to Palin.

I don't care for Ms Palin and her rhetoric; I think she's playing with a loaded gun. It makes more sense to me, though, to blame the Giffords' shooting on the abbysmal state of mental health care in our country than on political hate. A lot of hate is being directed at Sarah Palin. I wish her a long and healthy life, but if anyone were to take a shot at her, I'd be fascinated to see whether the press would don sack-cloth and begin a round of mea culpas.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The problem with tenure

I've been giving some thought to the tenure system in academia, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a bad idea. One of the reasons for tenure is that it allows the faculty member to teach and research ideas that the administration and community might find disagreeable without fear of job-loss. It should encourage creativity and intellectual independence and open up the marketplace of ideas.

It fails. Academia is notoriously inhospitable to some political philosophies (Keith Olbermann isn't likely to incite the passionate opposition that a visit from Anne Coulter will often ignite), and it's prone to intellectual fads. Why?

Well, first you spend four years as an undergrad regurgitating ideas back to your professors. In graduate school you apprentice yourself to a faculty member and explore ideas that he or she approves of in an approved-of way. You take your comps and qualifiers, defend your dissertation, and after eight or more years of combined undergraduate and graduate study, you get a job. In that job you spend six years not upsetting any of your colleagues or the people who review your articles. In other words, to get along you go along with prevailing wisdom and dogmas.

Sixteen years after you started at the university, you're tenured and ready to speak your mind and follow your research path. If you need funding, don't follow a path or say anything that's too controversial; even a Harvard President can lose his job for suggesting that there are differences between male and femal academics. That's no likely to be a problem - you've spent so long not rocking the boat that you're not likely to start now.

I think that the actual chase for tenure is the best way to destroy all those positive traits that it's supposed to encourage. I think that senior academics should have a little uncertainty in their lives, and junior academics should have less reason to not rock the boat. It's when you're young that you need protection for having wild ideas, not when you're old.

I don't think I'd like to patronize a business where some employees can't be fired and hold the power to grant that same security to other employees. I don't think that sort of business is likely to produce innovative products, good customer service or carefull attention to much but the wants of the permanent employees. If those employees value good service and innovation, then the enterprise might do well, but anyone who's worked in a real business understands that that isn't often the case. Self-interest will ruin a business run like a university.

Of course, now that I have tenure I'd really prefer to keep it. Seeing the solution to the problem, I'm sadly forced to conclude that I'm also part of the problem. We need a revolution, but only after I'm gone.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ezra Klein and understanding the Constitution

MSNBC contributor and Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein has an interesting take on the Constitution. After declaring the proposed reading of the Constitution in Congress a stunt, he suggested that, because the document is old, it's hard to understand. He noted that the Constitution can be interpreted in different ways, the obvious inference being that Republicans will interpret it their way (while Democrats will, presumably, interpret it the correct way), hence reading it serves no useful purpose.

With that last comment I'm putting words in Klein's mouth, interpreting his comments in a way he may not have intended. In so doing I illustrate a legitimate point on his part: If it's sometimes hard for a fluent speaker of English to interpret the precise intent of another contemporaneous fluent speaker, it may be as hard or harder to interpret the precise intent of a speaker who lived in a very different age ... (read more)


Welcome to my new blog. I write a couple of columns at the Washington Times Communities, one on politics and one on travel in Louisiana. This blog is a place to put the stuff I write that doesn't fit easily into my columns, either because it isn't long enough or because I haven't decided what my position is.