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Archive for November, 2007

More Planted Questions

We’ve already heard about questions for Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail being planted by the campaign staff itself. The practice is evidently more widespread than I would have imagined. It turns out that the Republican candidates’ debate arranged by CNN last night contained multiple planted questions. Questioners described as “undecided” have been unmasked as Clinton, Obama, and Edwards supporters and activists.

Now I have no complaints about a debate in which supporters of one party ask questions of candidates from the other. In fact, I think it’s a good idea. It’s important that people face questions coming from ideological perspectives different from their own, and it’s important to people of one party to see how candidates will handle questions raised by the opposition. Cross-examination is a good idea.

But it should be labeled as such. We should know whether questions are coming from friendly, undecided, or opposing quarters. CNN was wrong to mislead the audience and the candidates themselves about what was really going on.

Now that it’s clear, will CNN hold a debate among the Democratic candidates in which Republican voters get to ask the questions? Can you imagine how CNN would be playing this if Fox News had done something similar in reverse?

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Objectivity

Virginia Postrel reflects on Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison‘s book, Objectivity. Among the passages she quotes:

All epistemology begins in fear–fear that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstartion; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive. Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken. But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others. The threat is not external–a complex world, a mysterious God, a devious demon. Nor is it the corrigible fear of senses that can be strengthened by a telescope or microscope or memory that can be buttressed by written aids. Individual steadfastness against prevailing opinion is no help against it, because it is the individual who is suspect.

Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self….

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Physicists are considering a seemingly metaphysical question and seeking physical evidence for answers. (Hat tip: Wil Oxford.)

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G. A. Cohen presents two cases meant to illustrate points about distributive justice. (1) Tiny Tim is disabled. He nevertheless has a sunny disposition, sitting happily by the fire with his loving family. The family can’t afford a wheelchair. But Tiny Tim doesn’t mind. Still, a wheelchair would make it possible for him to function in many ways he can’t function otherwise. Would an ideal welfare policy provide him a wheelchair? (2) Jude is a quiet fellow of very modest tastes; it takes very little to make him content. He reads Hemingway, however, and becomes fascinated with bullfighting. He very much wants to travel to Spain to see a bullfight in person. But he can’t afford the trip. Should an ideal welfare policy pay for his trip?

Subsidizing Jude’s trip, let’s assume, would be less expensive than Tiny Tim’s wheelchair. And it would make more of a difference to Jude’s happiness than the wheelchair would to Tiny Tim’s. Moreover, let’s assume that Jude requires so little in social expenditures in general that support provided for him would be less than government expenditures for the average person.

Cohen argues that an ideal welfare policy would support both Tiny Tim and Jude. John Roemer agrees. My own intuitions run strongly in a different direction. I think that support for Tiny Tim is justifiable, but that support for Jude isn’t.

What are your intuitions about these cases? If you agree with me, then evidently you think, as I do, that (a) functioning is more important than happiness in justifying social support, and (b) no one is entitled to an average share of government expenditures.

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Some blunt but reasonable questions about the Annapolis conference. What is the President thinking?

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Dr. Sanity on postmodernism and the Democratic party’s current strategy. Ideas really do have consequences.

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What’s the square root of 169/49? According to the teacher of my friend’s daughter, ’2′. Well, it’s about 2. But why did she count ’13/7′ wrong? Here’s the teacher’s reply: “The answer is 2.  That’s what it says in the teacher’s manual.”

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Handel’s Messiah

The St. Cecilia Music Series is sponsoring a performance of Handel’s Messiah—the 1759 Foundling Hospital version, the last version Handel himself prepared, unabridged, on baroque instruments—over three nights at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, 15th Street, Austin, Texas:

Friday, November 30, 7pm: Part I.

Saturday, December 1, 7pm: Part II.

Sunday, December 2, 6pm: Part III.

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For a third night, Muslim youths are rioting in France—this time with guns. Over 100 police officers have been wounded, some seriously, as a rampage of vandalism and car burnings once again consumes areas of Paris, Toulouse, and other cities. “This is war,” says one of the leaders of the riots. The purported cause, an automobile accident involving a motorcycle and a police car, is tragic but by no means an injustice or even an intentional act. The French government is not treating this as a war, though they do appear to be taking it more seriously more quickly than they did two years ago.

A Dutch correspondent asks whether this is an attack on Christmas.

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Income Inequality

Thomas Sowell discusses the top one percent, which, as he notes, changes significantly over time.

Greg Mankiw points out that people care about injustice rather than inequality per se.

A thought inspired by reading them together: The difference between wealth and income is underappreciated. ‘Rich’ and ‘poor’ might be used in either sense, but seem primarily to refer to wealth. The top one percent, as discussed in Sowell’s piece and the many others to which he responds, are those at the top of the income distribution. As he observes, people can have high incomes without having much wealth, and can have much wealth without producing much income. Income relates, not to wealth, directly, but to changes in wealth. Or, better, wealth is a function of the integral of income. Moreover, incomes change dramatically from year to year, especially at the extremes of the bell curve. There are significant changes in wealth, too—the turnover rate in the Forbes 400 is surprisingly high—but wealth is probably more stable than income (though fluctuations in the stock and housing markets can have sweeping impacts).

UPDATE: This controversy illustrates my point nicely. Barack Obama thinks that anyone earning $97,000 or more is rich. Hillary Clinton demurs; for her, ‘rich’ starts applying only at family incomes of $250,000 or above. But it’s absurd to define ‘rich’ in terms of income, let alone income levels such as these. To adapt one of Sowell’s examples: the person with a family income of $250,000 this year might be someone retiring from a $50,000 a year job who sold a small house in New York and moved to Phoenix. And plenty of couples earning $250,000 (not to mention $97,000) would be astonished to learn that they are rich.

Let’s use the two-and-a-half rule, and say that a family earning $250,000 buys a $625,000 house. Here’s what that gets them in Los Angeles:

Los Angeles house

San Francisco:

sf.jpg

New York:

ny.jpg

Washington:

dc.jpg

Chicago:

chi.jpg

These are fine houses, but they don’t look like residences of the rich, do they?

This reminds me of the day I stopped calling myself an independent.  In 1981, Tip O’Neill declared that the Reagan tax cuts would mostly benefit the rich, and asserted that a relatively high percentage of the benefits would go to families earning over $40,000 a year.  (That’s equivalent to roughly $80,000 a year today, using the GDP deflator, or $90,000, using the Consumer Price Index—not too far from Obama’s definition.)

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