Thursday, March 25, 2010


1)L'affaire Frum. Painful moments of irony. But it's still sad if this is true.

2)Religions exemptions in the health care bill?

3)Iqbal, Twombly, and strange bedfellows on civil rights litigation.

4)I have some interest in the subject of this debate between Randal O'Toole of Cato and Matt Yglesias. I hate sprawl, like walkable urban neighborhoods, and also am generally not a friend of regulation. So it would be convenient if bad government policies produced the kind of sprawling suburbs I love to hate. O'Toole suggests things are not so simple. I'm not blown away by his Maricopa County code example -- if I'm understanding him correctly, ONLY developers with at least 160 acres of land can build things as densely as they want, which of course restricts lots of smaller scale developments. That said, I don't actually know anything about this subject, not having studied municipal laws across the country as closely as O'Toole has, so it's possible I'm entirely mistaken. In any case, I certainly don't want to use regulation to make other people live in neighborhoods of the kind that I like.

5)Quotable: "He cited the case of a painter whose stock in trade had been portraits of Lenin. The man was now earning his living churning out religious subjects. But, my friend added, so ingrained were his earlier habits that every time he painted the face of Jesus, he wound up with a likeness of Lenin."

6)My libertarian purity test score is 77. What's yours?

Anxiety About Influence

Julian Sanchez has an interesting post up on the ten books meme and the types of influence that books commonly have. See also Prettier Than Napoleon for more related thoughts. For what it's worth, my own list appears to be balanced evenly between the formal and substantive, but definitely tilted more theoretical than practical. Not sure what that says.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ten Books List

Every blogger and their mother is doing it. In chronological order:

1)Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. The first chapter book I ever read at age five. I broke down crying at the final chapter when Charlotte died. My mother tells me that I explained to her first that I was sad about Charlotte's death, but also because the book was over. I suppose you could say that this book clinched me as a lifelong reader; Barnes & Noble and Amazon have it to thank for all the business I've since sent their way.

"It is not often that someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both" also remain two of my favorite sentences in the English language.

2)Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte: I found this in the school library in March of the year when I was in fifth grade. It really wasn't supposed to be shelved with the books for fourth or sixth graders, but the librarian let it slip. It was harder going than anything I'd yet encountered, but I was electrified. I'd probably find it unbearably melodramatic if I had to go back and read it now, but I haven't yet been able to shake myself of a weakness for the Victorians.

3) Atlas Shrugged/The Fountainhead/We The Living -- As the libertarian in joke goes, it usually begins with Ayn Rand. As it did in my case. I read all three of the novels in a mad race in seventh grade. I'm no longer a hard Randian, but I got the basics of my political and economic views from her. I also became an agnostic and then an atheist because of Rand, which brings me to...

4)Elmer Gantryby Sinclair Lewis -- Other than Rand, the work that sealed the deal on my early teenage atheism. Also, Sinclair Lewis first brought to the surface my disdain for small town America, which hasn't really faded away. Pnin thinks it strange that my views on the place where I grew up were largely shaped by novels written in the 1920s, but I maintain that there were a lot of parallels between the Midwest of Lewis's novels and the Allentown of the 1990s.

5)1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell: Orwell made me a hard-line anti-totalitarian. Not a libertarian per se -- Orwell was hardly one himself -- but certainly anti-totalitarian. Also, this is an early influence -- I read both in middle school.

6)Paul Fussell's Class/David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise -- The two books, both of which I read in college and then again a few times afterwards, which helped me best understand the peculiarities of the social class I'd come to inhabit. I also find myself channeling Fusell and Brooks stylistically -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not -- whenever I write fluff. I realize both can be unbelievably pretentious. I'm trying to get over that. Please bear with me, friends.

7)The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe -- Yes, there's much to hate about Wolfe. But he showed me that contemporary fiction could involve more than the art of writing exquisitely about nothing at all.*

Tyler Cowen asked me once what kind of book I would really like to read that isn't being sold in bookstores. I responded, "A Tom Wolfe novel that doesn't have the flaws of Tom Wolfe's novels." What I meant was roughly "more doorstop sized novels that are panoramic in scope and that tackle big social and political questions."

8)On Liberty by John Stuart Mill -- My favorite free speech absolutist. I still quote him all too frequently here on the blog. He's also wonderful on why we ought to be broad-minded in tolerating eccentricity. I quote him on that point too probably all too often.

9)Democracy in America/The Old Regime and the Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville -- Read both in college. They profoundly influenced how I think about social change and the nature of revolutions. Also, the former on American exceptionalism.

10) Richard Pipes's work on Russia -- I read Russian Under the Old Regime for a college course and followed up soon with Pipes's books on the Russian Revolution and Russia under the Bolshevik regime. First, I found Pipes's explanation of why Russia went Communist more compelling than anything I'd read on the subject yet. He also sold me on the value of rock guys in understanding how liberal democracies take root.

*I'm paraphrasing a famous quote, but Google's not turning up the source. Anyone?

**The outtakes that I know some of you will ask about: yes, I know, Hayek. If I could go up to #11, he'd be there. As it is, there's actually not much I get from Hayek that I didn't get from Rand or others on this list. #12 would be Middlemarch by George Eliot for shaping my sense of what a good novel ought to do.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Apology for my absence, and l'affaire Stupak

Dear blog --

Has it really been a week? I'm terribly sorry for neglecting you. First, there was three hours of Russian on Monday. And then yoga class on Tuesday night. Wednesday night, there was the horrible affair of the prospective wedding photographer in Bethesda. Long story short: he cracked a few too many lawyer jokes, and after Pnin asked too many pointed questions about price, he told us that he didn't want our business and showed us the door. Classy.

Then Thursday night, there was Pnin's law school alumni lecture event. Adam Liptak was good! He's the sort of old-fashioned, pro-free-speech liberal who actually thinks that Citizens United was rightly decided, and is also in favor of upholding the Fourth Circuit in the funeral protesters case. I know much less about the latter, but tentatively, cool. And Friday: drinks with the libertariat. Am still trying to figure out why the bartender at Passenger charged me $8 for two martini-ish specialty drinks that he made up, but if I am what passes for an attractive girl for whom people will do favors, so much the better.

Saturday: lovely weather and mostly productive furniture shopping. And a St. Patrick's day party hosted by one of Pnin's ex-RAs. I ran into one of my friends from Koch, who's been working on an anti-health care campaign for the last ten months. He didn't know where I was currently working or that I was engaged to Pnin, which suggests how hard these people have been toiling away. Nor did he appear to be in good shape by the time we ran into each other, also signaling that things were headed south.

Speaking of which, what is there to say? I didn't think they'd get the votes. Yet they did.

Re: l'affaire Stupak -- I have a close friend who likes to say that abortion is the biggest non-issue in American politics. I wouldn't go quite that far. First simply on rhetorical grounds: it seems unnecessarily rude to put the issue that way around my various conservative legal movement friends. Yet... there's a kernel of truth in there. It's deeply frustrating to see a mammoth increase in the size of government turn on such a peripheral issue.

L'affaire Stupak reminds me of Hayek. The connection came into my mind first
when reading this op-ed in the Post on Friday. Hayek understood, better than anyone else, how limited government eases the temperature of the culture wars. In a society in which the central government has little or no role in funding health care, the question of state support to abortion is moot. Women either pay for their abortions -- or choose not to seek abortions-- in accordance with their own consciences. As government grows, abortion and related difficult questions -- questions on which reasonable people hold passionately opposed views* -- increasingly come into relief. * Thus what George Will calls the "museum of hoary artifacts from liberalism's attic," including racial preferences and extravagant "green" grant programs, littering the bill. The presence of such museum is no coincidence. It's precisely the effect that Hayek described so beautifully in The Road to Serfdom.

Would that the cultural warriors -- of both the liberal and conservative varieties -- recognized what we passionate limited government types have to give them. We're perhaps the people best able to give their communities maximum breathing room to live in accordance with their consciences.

*This is another post, perhaps even a series of academic books, but no, I don't think the abortion issue is simple. If it were, it would have been resolved long ago.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In search of libertarian atheist puritanism

On second thought, perhaps I do have purity/sanctity moral intuitions. It's not actually the same purity reflex that liberals have regarding the environment or healthy food. (My writing a post yesterday about a French fry and cupcake eatery should have made the latter point clear, at least.)

I do have intuitions of purity/sanctity regarding language and grammar, though. I'm not sure that my soul ever knew how to shudder, in Leon Kass's sense of the term, regarding biomedical technology. But it does shudder when I see the phrase "an alumni of X university." Of course, there are no questions about this point anywhere on Haidt's tests. Maybe Bryan is right; maybe liberals and libertarians do have purity/sanctity intuitions, just different ones than Haidt's current tests measure.

The William James quote is also interesting. Like any good Hayekian, I believe that there are unseen orders everywhere. Language is one such unseen order. So, of course, is the marketplace. But I don't see any "supreme good" that comes from harmoniously adjusting oneself to the economic market. I agree that it's practical to adjust one's behavior to the marketplace -- in the sense that it's probably a bad idea, in 2010, to take up candle-making or artisanal carriage manufacturing as a trade instead of, say, computer engineering. But the issue there isn't moral, at least not for me.

With language, however, it is. I can't quite express this well, but language has such potential for beauty. And only by learning how to master the rules of language can humans come to realize language's full potential for beauty. As an atheist, I'm basically stuck thinking that humans' supreme good lies in learning how to do beautiful things well. See generally W.H Auden:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Notes on wandering around Georgetown

1. Found in a wedding magazine: a recommendation to play Cake's "Love You Madly" during the cake cutting part of one's ceremony. Note that the first lines are "I don't want to wonder/If this is a blunder/I don't want to worry if we're going to stay together 'til we die. It's a decent song about ambivalence in relationships. But it's no play territory, not cake cutting music.

I immediately e-mailed Clarissa Dalloway to share. "That's like playing "Born To Run" at political rallies," she said.

"No, 'Love You Madly' is worse. With 'Born to Run,' the chorus sounds patriotic, and the tempo is actually upbeat. It's only from the verses that you know that the chorus is supposed to be ironic. And Springsteen mutters, so it's hard to make out all of the verses."

Still, opinions welcome.

2. I don't understand the "Real Weddings" article sub-genre that many wedding magazines have. The subtext seems to be, "Look! Real people actually have weddings! There are people who do not throw up their hands in despair and elope!" I am happy about these people's not succumbing to despair, but, like, pulling off having a nice wedding seems like not that remarkable an achievement.

The sub-genre is often heavy on annoying political correctness. The selection of real couples must be racially balanced. Apparently no area of American life -- not even bridal magazines -- can remain untouched by quota mania. There are also sometimes SWPL anecdotes -- "It was really important to Emily and Jacob that all of their invitations and programs be printed on recycled paper" or "DeShawn and Tomoko seamlessly blended African-American and Japanese culinary traditions with an innovative, unique catering menu." The whole exercise seems designed to guilt trip me into feeling badly that I am not sitting at my laptop doing work.

Often as not, I just get distracted and start judging the couple based on their resumes. I should try to focus and just focus on whether or not I'm getting any useful ideas about flowers.

3. While on the same Barnes and Noble excursion, I took a look at a certain much maligned book on the case for settling. It's more insipid than I expected. I might say more about that in a separate post, except for the little matter of the private right of action I created that's enforceable against me.

4. I'm surprisingly unmoved by everything that's in clothing stores. This is the problem with the ridiculousness of the retail calendar; I just can't get excited about trying on sundresses when it's forty-two degrees and raining. Except for cheap ballet flats which are excellent.

5. I wanted to think that trendy cupcakes were overrated, merely another annoying affectation of the Uggs and North-Face clad undergrad masses. I was wrong. My Irish Creme cupcake was as fresh and delicious as the best cupcakes I've made myself. Maybe this experience will be enough to convince me to stop being so darn judgmental, though I doubt it.

Related wild idea: start a business that would sell nothing but specialty cupcakes, fancy French fries, and beverages (mostly hot chocolate and coffee.) Fancy French fries = involving sweet potatoes. another version involving garlic, and also others involving customized blends of spices. Perhaps these things do not go together, some will say, and this whole idea is deeply wrong. Perhaps. But if it's wrong, I don't want to be right.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Very good sentences

How do you know if your advice is “unwanted”?

A blunt but wise rule of thumb: If a person wants your advice, he will ask for it.

-- Bryan Caplan

Me = a liberal who really likes markets?

Gentle readers, you wouldn't be getting what you paid for if I didn't link to Will Wilkinson's post about the moral psychology of libertarians. The upshot: Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia has previously studied how liberals and conservatives differ from each others on five standardized dimensions of morality. A bunch of libertarians have since filled out his survey, and it turns out that libertarians score more like liberals than like conservatives. The guys at Econlog also have interesting things to say.

For what it's worth, I took Haidt's test almost three years ago. N=1, but I scored more like a liberal than like a conservative.

I took the test because I followed the link from Reason. I suspect a substantial percentage of the few hundred other libertarians also did because they followed the same link. Reason readers may not be representative of the libertarian movement as a whole. They (we?) are probably more opinionated, more cosmopolitan, and more suspicious of tradition than more right-leaning libertarians.

For the record: I would never kick a dog in the head for any amount of money. Especially if it were a golden retriever.

You'd have to pay me a fairly high amount of money to renounce my citizenship. But that's not because of any gut level moral revulsion at the concept. It would just be administratively annoying not to have a passport or a driver's license or any number of other government documents.

I don't get the blood transfusion question. Is the idea that you're supposed to be squicked out by the concept of having a bad person's blood in your body? I mean, I presumably wouldn't ever want to have to get a blood transfusion in the first place, because the process would probably be uncomfortable. But if I did need one, I wouldn't care whose blood it was. Are there really people who do?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

This is all my fault. I have failed at life.

Conor Friedersdorf flags a not very impressive op-ed by Hannah Giles, best known for her role in the ACORN Videos. Key quote:

Young, truly devoted liberals, who can defend and properly communicate what they believe and formulate their own ideas to help their team are hard to come by. Very hard. Now, it is true, the Left in Washington has a giant stronghold in Hollywood. There are dozens of young actors/comedians/musicians/artists who side with the political left and promote their policies publicly, encouraging the average youth to behave and think as they do.

But what young warriors do the liberals have? I’m not asking about the automated liberal-spewing machines, or the professional foamers in the blogosphere. Not the kind of public-school-educated robots who grew up obeying Hollywood and defying their parents. I’m talking about leaders, the thinking types.

Ponder this for a moment: currently, names like Aaron Schock, Jason Mattera, James O’Keefe, Evan Baehr, Brendan Steinhauser, Lila Rose and Ben Shapiro are popping up on the public radar. Besides being under 30, this crew is desperately fighting for America on the conservative policy/political side of things, and the scary/really cool thing about it is they have the smarts, creativity, guts, and resolve to do so.

The only young liberal that I would consider in their league is the 25 year-old Ezra Klein of Newsweek. He is extremely intellectual, creative and effective at communicating his ideas to mass audiences. That’s right, his ideas. He doesn’t just parrot what the leftist elites in Washington are saying. And that deserves credit; it is hard to formulate your own thoughts on issues and devote yourself to ensuring they are communicated accurately and efficiently.

Reading her list of "thinking types" on the young right, I feel kind of like one of the overeducated twenty-something characters in The Emperor's Children who know that, despite their seeming youth and promise, they have somehow irreversibly screwed up everything. While both The Emperor's Children and Giles's column are kind of awful, they are kind of awful in completely different ways. It feels like a perverse achievement, somehow, that Giles's awfulness conjures up a normally completely opposed form of awfulness. There ought to be a literary term for this, but I can't think of one.

What do I do when my love is away?

Yes, there's "lie on the couch and eat supermarket sushi while drinking overpriced fruit juice and watching Mad Men." But there's also 1)Agree with op-ed written by the Other Ilya (ETA: and Josh) and 2)Agree with Orin. Clearly I need Pnin's beneficient influence...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Daily Dartmouth Anti-Defamation League

A fellow VRWC type from Dartmouth e-mails me this link to a Dartmouth Review blog post and asks, "Having more experience than I on the "grown-up" side ofthe D's operations, what say you?" Since he's perhaps not the only one who's interested to read my response, I thought he'd forgive me for being rude and responding here. To recap the content of the link: the Dartmouth undergrads' daily paper, The Dartmouth (the "D), has recently "obtained" French court documents indicating petition trustee candidate Joe Asch's company was indicted in France for fiscal or tax fraud. Not surprisingly, their conservative rivals at the Review take them to task for this work of dirty "journalism."

Of course the D should have investigated the story. The Review insinuates that the D likely got the French court documents from an opposition researcher hired by the Repogle campaign and that this might have been just a bit underhanded of Repogle. Fine; so be it; I'm willing to accept that this might well be true. But I'm not convinced it makes sense for the D to tell the opposition researcher to just go away.

This is an important story. There's a lot at stake in trustee elections; these elections have generated a flood of national media coverage in the last few years, including from the New York Times. Of course alumni voters care about whether trustee candidates manage their firms ethically and legally. Of course it reflects poorly on the fitness of trustee candidates if they don't. What is the D writer supposed to say in this circumstance? "Please take your documents and go away. We don't think that this story is important enough for us to cover." Indeed, trying to claim that this story isn't interesting enough for the D is especially silly. Hanover's a sleepy little town, and D writers are often known to fall back on filling column inches with minutiae about long cafeteria lines and the pretty fall leaves.

Besides, what does Mr. Dameron think would have happened to the story if the D had refused to publish something? Does he not think that the oppo researchers would not have turned around and contacted the left-leaning Free Press? Does he think that the Freepers would have hesitated to lash out the crypto-right-wing crypto-conservatives at The Dartmouth for hushing up a potentially damning story about Joe Asch? Precisely whose interest does he think that would serve?

(Yes, of course, most D writers are...uh... very, very crypto about their right-wing conservatism. They're so much in the closet that they daren't admit their alleged right-wing conservatism to themselves. Yes, I know this, and I'm sure Mr. Dameron does too. But there are plenty of loons who are convinced that the D is insufficiently left-wing, who would not hesitate to write scathing things about an attempt to cover up a negative Asch story.)

A sensible person might point out that the D could have declined to print the story on the grounds that it refuses to deal with anonymous sources. It's true that when I was there, we generally declined to print quotes attributed to anonymous sources in extreme circumstances. Five years out, I don't know what their rules are now. Note, though, that this isn't a true anonymous sources case. The story only quotes an apparently verifiable government document which was leaked by an anonymous source.

In any case, the story itself is mostly reasonable. The student reporter called Asch and got his side of the story. Contra the Review blog post, this is not the usual practice of propagandists.

Dameron raises the reasonable point that the D ought to have reached out to outside legal experts to get a sense of just how bad Asch's wrongdoing was. I agree that a few such quotes would have made the story stronger. But this is much easier said than done. First, real experts in the law of cross-border tax transactions are insanely busy. They're partners at the kind of firms where they can charge over a thousand dollars per hour for their services. They barely have time to see their kids and wives, much less chat with undergrad reporters. Dameron throws out a reference to alumni connections. Of course many such people are Dartmouth grads, but to think that they bleed sufficiently green to leave aside paying clients to talk to twenty year olds suggests a rather... rosy... view of the importance of alumni ties.

Dameron may also underestimate how risk averse the average big firm lawyer is. If a D writer were so lucky as to get one of these guys on the phone, I can just imagine how the conversation would go. The law firm lawyer would have lots of caveats along the lines of "Based on the facts that you have provided..." and "On the other hand..." These guys don't like to get things wrong. They're afraid to do something that would get them in trouble with their paying clients, and so they tend not to speak in the kind of sound bites that would work in a story like this.

Similarly, I can only speculate about why the D waited so long to publish the story. It may have been so that it could occupy the front page for weeks during break. Or... it could have been that the staff recognized that this article had more moving parts than the typical summary of a speech story, and they may have waited until the last day of term to make sure that they'd ironed out as many wrinkles as possible.

Finally, I don't think that this episode raises any really serious questions about Asch's ethics or business judgment. By the account given in the D article, the tax dispute was settled amicably. These issues are complicated. Honest, ethical businessmen make mistakes in good faith.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Baking question

Again, I'm posting the same content here as to Facebook. Sorry! But can anyone recommend a recipe for a baked good that a)can travel eight hours in the car comfortably, in March weather, without spoiling and b)is not terribly sweet?

Thanks in advance!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Uncharacteristic bursts of optimism and non-misanthropy

1. I had no idea until today that it is possible for opthamologists to use special cameras to take retinal photographs IN LIEU OF ADMINISTERING EYEDROPS. This is approximately the most excellent thing ever, as I cannot stand drops and am bad at putting things in my eyes.

Some of you gentle readers will point out that I wear contact lenses. Yes, well, I had to visit my opthamologist's office about six or seven different times in high school while I struggled to learn how to get the things in. I am nothing if not vain.

2. Oyamel is awesome. The guacamole and scallops in pumpkin sauce are especially heavenly, but really, it seems hard to go wrong.

"The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won."

Quoth Jonathan Rauch in National Journal.

I like Rauch a lot. He's good at channeling the raging id that I have deep down inside which loves to lash out at conservative anti-intellectualism. At the same time, I recognize the problems with giving my id too much free vein.

Let's start with acknowledging that okay, much of the tea partiers' belief system is intellectually incoherent. Fine. Most popular political movements are incoherent at some level. The bleeding heart types are as bad in their own way. Of course, that doesn't make it right when the bleeding hearts do it either. Rauch's right to acknowledge the problem. But sometimes he veers too far off into the direction of suggesting that this is a world historically bad time for the libertarian right. Whereas in my estimation, to paraphrase Churchill, our own historical moment is the worst time for the libertarian right except for all of the others.

I'm also put off by the choice of George Wallace as archetypal bad populist because of Wallace's famous racism. To his credit, Rauch acknowledges up front that the modern populist GOP is admirably non-racist. While I appreciate the concession, the whole exercise is a bit like a writing a column about Hitler's vegetarianism and gently asking the reader to set aside the whole Holocaust thing for a few minutes. Theoretically possible to put aside intellectually, yes; in practice, however, nearly impossible to accomplish because the emotional connotations are just too strong.

On a different note: why have populists picked out Brie as their favored symbol of elitist opprobrium? One, it's delicious. Two, a wedge of it typically costs about $5 ($3 for a small wedge and $7 for a really large one.) As far as luxuries go, this is a pretty affordable one.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Explanation for today's fit of vexation and dyspepsia

I read this piece by Ross Douthat and immediately remembered why I should never be anywhere near any position of power:

"Perhaps the most fundamental problem, however, is that INTJs really want people to make sense. :-) This sometimes results in a peculiar naivete', paralleling that of many Fs -- only instead of expecting inexhaustible affection and empathy from a... relationship, the INTJ will expect inexhaustible reasonability and directness."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Things other people are writing about the Akaka bill

I am normally delicate about keeping my work life away from this forum. I recognize all too well that I'm prone to sticking my foot in my mouth. But I see little harm in linking to things that other people have said about my work projects. In that spirit, do go see see this editorial and Ilya's fine posts on same.

In that spirit, if I'm reticent in comments, it isn't from lack of devotion. It's because of, well, said well-documented tendency to stick foot in mouth.

Straw poll

Apologies to people who read both this and my Facebook page; I recognize that there is significant overlap between the two. Bt what do people think of the concept of giving wedding guests the alternative of giving gifts to charity rather than items from the registry?

To anticipate some possible comments: 1)Yes, I've done some perfunctory Googling and looked at what etiquette columnists have to say. I'm more interested in what people's off the cuff reactions are. 2)No, I would not actually include such a request in a wedding invitation.