Sunday, July 07, 2002

WAITER, COULD I HAVE IT BOTH WAYS PLEASE? John Rosenberg recently directed me to his post on vouchers and the pledge. I had suggested that the voucher decision and the pledge decision were much more consistent than many people were letting on. Toward the end of his post, Rosenberg noted that he supported the vouchers case and opposed the pledge case on grounds that he thought were perfectly consistent. He wrote:
Perhaps we should come up with a new standard that would require both an impermissible intent AND sufficiently extensive effects in order to find [an] Establishment violation.
A nice try, but I don't think this cuts it either, even on Rosenberg's own terms. One of the big themes of Rosenberg's generally thoughtful blog is his staunch opposition to disparate impact thinking. Under this approach, only government intent should matter: So what if the effect happens to be lots of federal funds to religious schools? (restating the rationale of the vouchers case). Then, Rosenberg turns around and suggests that even when the government intent is promotion of religion, if the effects are small it should be permitted. (arguing for overruling of the pledge case)

This, I believe, is a classic case of wanting to have it both ways. When it comes to saying vouchers don't violate the establishment clause, Rosenberg wants us to look to the government's neutral intent and disregard whatever non-neutral effects it might have. But when it comes to saying "under God" in the pledge is OK, suddenly Rosenberg rests his argument on its effects. As Rosenberg would have it, effects aren't always irrelevant -- it turns out they matter a lot when having them matter is convenient. In fact, this is pretty close to an admission that a law's actual effects matter, something Rosenberg (and many others) have invested lot of energy in disputing, and pretty successfully at that.

Perhaps it's just me, but Rosenberg's logical whipsaw seems the very height of inconsistency. This is just the kind of trouble you get into when you engage in result-oriented thinking rather than picking a principle ex ante and sticking to it, even if this sometimes creates results you don't like.

Friday, July 05, 2002

COLLEGE GIRLS GONE WILD. There's been some interesting news lately about how several percentage points more women are enrolling and graduating from American colleges than men. This has prompted John Rosenberg to go on a pretty serious rant about how this means admissions programs are creating a disparate impact program against men. Rosenberg argues that just like universities can lose federal funding if they don't achieve proportional gender representation in sports, they should lose federal funding if the male-female ratios in colleges isn't balanced. As Rosenberg would have it, it is time for "preferentialists" to reap what they have sown: there's a disparate impact against men, and therefore men are being discriminated against.

Unfortunately for Rosenberg, he's mostly tilting at windmills. True, there are still some people who believe that "neutral" criteria -- for instance, giving civil service job preferences to veterans -- can sometimes have the effect of discriminating against women. In fact, I'm one of them. But despite what Rosenberg seems to believe, the sixties are over, and the "preferentialists" he's so afraid of lost out long ago. Take the civil service job preferences to veterans, where way fewer women are veterans because of combat restrictions and the draft. In Feeney, 442 U.S. 256 (1979), the Court held civil service preferences to veterans to be just fine. The current Court could not be more agreed with this conception of neutrality when it comes to Equal Protection issues (or indeed, certain religious issues, as we've seen in the vouchers case).

The majority of Rosenberg's argument is based on "disparate impact law":
The whole corpus of disparate impact law is based on the view that policies or practices that are neutral on their face and non-discriminatory in their intent can nevertheless be illegally discriminatory if they have a disparate impact on minorities. This is the sort of complaint, for example, that is frequently lodged against the SAT and other tests. Disparate impact law was legitimized by the Supremes back in 1971 when they held that Duke Power Company's policy of requiring all employees to have at least a high school diploma or pass an intelligence test violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Griggs v. Duke Power Company, 401 U.S. 424).
But the "whole corpus" is a corpse. The fact that some cases may be lodged against the SAT doesn't mean those cases will be won. Those suits against the SAT or against use of the SAT by state colleges are sure losers; use of scores on a test graded without knowledge of the test-taker's race or gender (in fact, graded by a machine) is never going to be challenged by the Rehnquist Court or any court which adheres to its precedents. Just take a look at Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976); Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., 429 U.S. 252, (1977); Personnel Administrator of Mass. v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256 (1979); Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352 (1991). Particularly relevant for the SAT case is Washington v. Davis. In that case a test for government employment on which minorities always did far worse was upheld because facially neutral. Griggs is a dead letter -- some lower courts have already recognized that it has been overruled sub silentio, and they are 100% right. Facially neutral policies will almost always be upheld in the race area (with very rare exception when there are truly egregious disparate impacts, such as in Gomillion, 364 U.S. 339 (1960), where after a 28-sided redistricting gerrymander, 400 blacks found themselves outside the city limits but oddly, no whites had been moved outside). In the gender area, where only intermediate scrutiny applies, facially neutral policies with disparate impacts will be upheld even more often, if that is possible.

Thus, all that's left of this part of Rosenberg's argument is the rather odd contention that if the discredited and unsuccessful legal theories of the "preferentialists" he ridicules were in play, it might be possible to help keep men from losing ground in the nation's public universities. A better argument of his is that because of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded schools, this disparate impact needs to be remedied too. Gender differences in resources going to sports are grounds for withholding federal funds, Rosenberg notes, so why shouldn't gender differences in admissions or graduation rates?

On first inspection, this looks like a pretty good point. But it's not quite the "gotcha" Rosenberg thinks it is. Differences in funding and sports programs don't simply materialize through the application of neutral criteria; they are the result of specific choices by school sports administrators. School administrators choose to have a football program, or a field hockey program, or to have JV women's basketball, or lightweight crew. They choose to put money into sports recruiting. Any gender imbalance in sports is at least substantially attributable to conscious decisions by school officials. There's no gender-blind "Sports SAT" that students can be given for a school to pick out the top 200 athletes, and place them into an athletic program, and then after the test, the officials notice, "Hey, whaddaya know, we've got more male athletes than females." The very nature of sports -- an outstanding miler might make a terrible linebacker -- makes such an approach impossible, even within one gender.

On the other hand, we do have a gender-blind test for academics. We as a society seem to believe that high school grades and SAT scores, plus some extra factors like extracurriculars, are pretty good grounds to select students, regardless of race or gender. (I'm not sure I agree, but we'll just assume this is so for the sake of argument) Specific quotas for race -- and presumably for gender -- are in fact unconstitutional violations of Equal Protection, Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978), so I have to say I'm not sure how Rosenberg would have schools correct the slight gender imbalance currently "favoring" women. A "Harvard-style" system where male applicants in ties got a bump or where their maleness was considered as one of many factors in a larger equation would probably be permissible, but quotas would not. Unlike sports, where funding choices are directly made by some administrator, admissions in general are in large part based on scores and grades, and are quite constrained by Bakke, the case that struck down affirmative action quotas as discrimination against whites. In the end, Rosenberg ends up bumping his head into a case I'm confident he thinks was quite correct.

So there are my quibbles with Rosenberg's response to the new statistics on the gender breakdown in the nation's universities. I am glad to see, however, that he is taking disparate impact seriously. As a theory, it's pretty much fallen off the face of the legal world, and isn't really particularly relevant anymore, but if enough people keep complaining about "disparate impact law", who knows? -- maybe it might come back.

And one last note for those of you who like vouchers -- watch out. Rosenberg sagely points out that the government does have power (though I'll add not unlimited power) to condition grants of federal money on compliance with certain government goals if it wants to. I.e., Title IX. If religious schools become dependent on vouchers, they may open the door to increased federal intervention though conditional funding.
VOUCHERS AND PLEDGE 24-7. Just got an email from Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune reacting to my vouchers/pledge post:
I saw your item wondering why voucher proponents don't support neutrality on the Pledge issue, and thought you might be interested in knowing that one voucher supporter does.
Chapman agrees with my view that the vouchers decision and the pledge decision are actually not inconsistent; in fact, he beat me to the punch by a couple days, publishing a great editorial on June 30th. A couple excerpts from his outstanding editorial:
The two court decisions are opposite sides of the same coin. The Cleveland program gives parents vouchers that can be used to pay up to 90 percent of tuition at private schools, including religious ones....

The departure from neutrality comes not in the Cleveland voucher program but in the Pledge of Allegiance. The establishment clause of the 1st Amendment clearly means the government cannot pass a law declaring an official religion of the United States. But that's effectively what Congress did in 1954 when it inserted the words "under God" into the pledge....

Defenders of the pledge say it's "absurd" to treat those two words as a constitutional violation. They would feel differently if Muslims gained control of a school board and instructed teachers to start each day by leading students in chanting, "Allah Akbar!" (Arabic for "God is great").

The only difference is that the words in the pledge are familiar and in keeping with the sentiments of most Americans. But familiarity and popularity are no excuse for putting government policy and funding squarely on the side of religion.

Thanks, Steve. I'm glad to see that there are some commentators out there who see that the vouchers case and the pledge case are two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, I don't think five Supreme Court justices will. The "ceremonial deism" line of precedent is available, and they'll almost certainly use it. However, I think the "ceremonial deism" argument is a cop-out; it is tantamount to saying some religious things are so general and harmless and perfectly acceptable to the majority of people that they don't really count for Establishment Clause purposes. Personally, I believe the opposite -- I think that the smaller the religiously marginalized group, the stronger the Establishment Clause should be. The religious mainstream will use their clout so that "Allah Akbar!" will never be statutorily required, while "one nation under God" will be and has been. It's the small groups who are afraid to speak up for fear of ostracization that the Establishment Clause really should serve. An Establishment Clause that only protects against things most people are offended by is a pretty useless provision. It may seem counterintuitive, but the fact that only very few people are bothered by the religious component of the Pledge of Allegiance is, to me, a reason we should take the Establishment Clause especially seriously -- not less seriously -- when it comes to something most people find as innocent as nonsectarian references to God by the federal government.
BRIN WEIGHS IN. Glad to know Sci-Fi legend David Brin, if not on the same page, is in a similar chapter on reactionary elements in popular science fiction and fantasy. (See posts here and here) (links via this blog).

Indeed, before I heard about Brin's position, in my rant about xenophobic speciesism in the film Titan A.E. I identified him as an author I wish more science fiction and fantasy writers emulated. Guess this was no coincidence: Brin is conscious of how regressive the mine run of writing in the genre is, and expresses his concern (of course) far more articulately than I ever could. Although I did admittedly go on to praise Star Wars as well -- and I still think that was correct in the area of race relations; while Star Wars has its problems, humans-vs-aliens thinking is not one of them -- I wrote:
I wish someone would make a movie version of David Brin's The Uplift War. Now that's some sci-fi, a series that doesn't just replay the same tired old formula: humans suffer at hands of aliens, then humans get revenge. Rather, the Uplift War depicts a much more rationalized scheme of intergalactic relations, where younger sentient species apprentice out to older, more experienced species.

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

THE PLEDGE AND ISLAM. John Hudock is understandably critical of Interaction Publishers' Islam: A Simulation of Islamic History and Culture, 610-1100, descibed here. Hudock wryly notes:
Where is the Ninth Circuit Court? I guess open promotion of religion in schools doesn't count as long as the religion is not Judeo-Christian.
Well, for one, the article does say there has been a federal lawsuit filed, so Hudock will vicariously get his day in court eventually. I myself am not sure whether the pledge case should be extended to wipe out the Interaction module. There are certainly potential distinctions between the Interaction module and the pledge -- students are told the pledge is real but are told that the module is just role-playing to teach them about other perspectives. Students are never told the pledge is just an educational game. Students do the Islam module in one class for three weeks; students say the pledge every morning for thirteen years. The Islam module is taught in conjunction with other lessons -- over the course of a social studies class, kids might also study China, ancient Sumeria, even the European Middle Ages, including cathedrals, or maybe even competing Christian doctrines during a study of the Reformation. While the Islam module is one of many in a semester or year-long social studies class, the pledge is the same thing, every day, for thirteen years. No teacher ever tells students that "Under God" in the pledge is an "alternative cultural perspective." So I don't think study of world religions from a social or historical perspective necessarily need be wiped out by the pledge decision -- there are at least some differences.

I don't know that the Interaction Publishers educational material on Islam will withstand a trial -- there are elements of the role-play described that are pretty questionable (though I think they become less questionable as the students participating becoming older, and more able to distinguish acting from reality). I do think public schools would be the poorer if they had to teach wholly religion-sanitized versions of the Crusades, the Reformation, and Puritans in history class, and couldn't teach parts of the Bible, as well as other religious texts, as historical primary sources, literature and cultural case studies (though not as religious truth, of course.)

And a quick final note -- if you're for keeping "Under God" in the pledge and for the Ninth Circuit being overruled, then you should also be for the constitutionality of a public school teaching the Interaction Islam module. Whatever problems the module might have, it is less religiously indoctrinating then the pledge, as I discuss above. On the other hand, if you don't like how it makes you feel that the Islam module is being taught (probably a lot of people don't like it; I myself am not thrilled by the fact) then you probably have some sense of how the athiest Newdow felt at having "under God" in the pledge, with the Pledge of Allegiance being a lot more serious a part of schools than some silly three-week module.
TLC IS "THE LYING CHANNEL": MacKenzie smells a rat in The Learning Channel's investigative reporting.
THE WHEEL OF TIME COULD USE SOME OIL. I just finished reading Robert Jordan's Winter's Heart, the ninth installment of his behemoth Wheel of Time fantasy epic. The books used to have halfway descriptive names (The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, etc.) but Winter's Heart could be an Eskimo romance or an account of the battle of Stalingrad for all the title tells us. Winter's Heart is descriptive in one sense: True to the book's name, the plot moves at a glacial pace. Evidently chilled by the cold, the storyline has gone into hibernation. David Dalgleish largely concurs with my assessment in his review, The End is Not in Sight.

When I first started reading the series in seventh grade, I was blown away by Jordan's fast-paced storytelling, all while juggling innumerable subplots. 6000 pages later (each book is in the neighborhood of 600-1000 pages long) I feel like I've been captured. After putting such a big time investment into the characters and plot (I actually re-read the first five books at one point) I'm not about to give up now. But instead of enjoying the books, I'm starting to feel like I'm merely enduring them. For the most part, Jordan is becoming increasingly mired down in absurdly detailed descriptions -- one reader called the descriptions "fetishistic" -- of minor characters' clothing. Reading 700 pages simply to get one plot development just isn't a good investment return. Like millions of other novelistic kidnappees, I'll read the rest of the Wheel of Time, catapulting every volume high in the bestseller lists. But that doesn't mean I'll like it.

Part of the enscription that begins each book reads: "There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time." Well, I'm not sure about the no beginnings part, but the part about no endings is turning out to be dead-on prophetic.

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

THOUGHTS ON VOUCHERS, PLEDGE. There's been a lot of activity on the blogs regarding the Supreme Court's decision that neutrally administered vouchers are OK, as well as general outrage about the Ninth Circuit's decision that the statute adding "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Establishment Clause. I flatter myself that anyone would care what I have to add to the discussion, but hey, it's my blog. (For more in-depth commentary, see Prof. Volokh and Dennis Rogers parts I and II).

Personally, I was less than thrilled by the voucher decision. But while I do have an urge to whine, it's worthwhile to suppress that urge at least momentarily and accept that the Supreme Court has decided, and the permissibility of vouchers is now the law. Of course, whining is highly relevant to the upcoming legislative policy debate -- vouchers are permissible, but the Supreme Court's decision doesn't require Congress or any state to provide them -- but that's not what concerns me right now.

What concerns me is the inconsistency of many who celebrate the vouchers decision while decrying the pledge decision. The core principle of the vouchers decision is that government does not collide with the Establishment Clause when it provides religiously neutral aid, which some or most individuals receiving the aid independently chose to spend on religious education and indoctrination. This is no different, at least in theory, from a bureaucrat giving part of her salary to a religious group, a student spending a Pell grant at a religious college like Notre Dame, or 501(c)(3) deductions for donations to a church (deductions are tax expenditures just as much as giving someone cash aid directly). Neutrality, neutrality, neutrality has always been the mantra of the Rehnquist Court -- beginning with eviscerating the old focus on protecting discrete and insular minorities in Carolene Products footnote 4 in favor of neutrality in the area of Equal Protection doctrine. Now the climb up Neutrality Mountain is nearly complete in the Establishment Clause area. If there's one message the Rehnquist Court wants to get across, it's that actual results don't matter; facially neutral policies are all we ask for.

The vouchers decision has continued this trend: when it comes to the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court now says government neutrality is the touchstone. But if religiously neutral policies like vouchers get upheld, then religiously non-neutral policies should be struck down. A federal statute creating an official national pledge which asked students to say "one nation under Allah" would be religiously non-neutral, and should be struck down, and "one nation under God" is really no different -- it contains a religious, albeit nonsectarian, message. If the pledge statute said: "one nation under [students say whatever you want here]", and almost all students happened to insert "God" of their own volition, now that would be religiously neutral.

Yet I don't think you'll find many proponents of vouchers seeking to apply the same principle of neutrality they applaud in the context of vouchers to the pledge case. To me this seems inconsistent, but I have to admit, people are sometimes inconsistent. And I'm not saying that inconsistency is limited to any particular ideology or partisan group. But I do think that when the Supreme Court overrules the pledge case, it will still be acting in a way that is, at its root, in substantial tension with the voucher case. The fact that the Court will likely rely on all the various instances of "ceremonial deism" that have been allowed for so long in our society -- "In God We Trust", even "God save this Honorable Court", etc. -- doesn't make the decision any more principled. It's funny how things in the real world suddenly matter so much to people when they want to say "Under God" is no different from what's already going on out there, but the fact that 90-plus percent of voucher aid was going to religious schools in real-world Ohio is somehow irrelevant to the question of whether vouchers are an unconstitutional entanglement of government and religion. But disparate impact arguments are a lost cause, and I promised I wouldn't whine.

Assuming that the Supreme Court resolves the circuit split regarding the legality of "under God" in the pledge in favor of keeping "under God" -- a pretty conservative prediction -- we will then live in a world where the government's religious neutrality is taken seriously only when doing so is convenient. The reason this tension will develop is not because people are fundamentally unprincipled, but because the real principle driving such decisions -- approval of government support for mainstream religion -- must remain hidden under the Establishment Clause.
THREE CHEERS FOR THE GREEN GOBLIN. I've been thinking about the Spiderman movie, and have concluded that you gotta give the Green Goblin credit. He could easily have moved to a sprawling city like Los Angeles where Spiderman couldn't travel by webslinging and set up his fiefdom there, but no, he was willing to take on Spiderman on ground favorable to Spiderman: New York. That took guts. Along with bravery, the Green Goblin clearly enjoyed his job as well. He could have just killed Spiderman when he was paralyzed by the Goblin's paralysis smoke, but no, that would have been too easy. Instead, the Green Goblin thoughtfully crafted a way to impale Spiderman on the horns of an impossible dilemma, simultaneously letting Mary Jane and a car full of schoolchildren fall to their apparently imminent death, expecting Spiderman to only be able to save one, and then, as Spiderman was split between the two, trying to attack him. (Remember, the Goblin was foiled here not by Spiderman but only by the interference of rock-throwing spectators on the bridge -- hardly a fair fight). Even though the M.J.-or-kids dilemma didn't work out in the end for Green Goblin, you have to give him credit for going the extra mile when he didn't have to (again, think paralysis smoke). Cheers to Green Goblin, for taking villainy seriously. People say Hollywood's to blame for all sorts of problems, but the Green Goblin teaches children that while not everyone gets to be the hero of the movie, anyone can work hard and take pride in what they do. The Green Goblin did, and for that, he's a role model.
DEFENSOR ELVES. Read Brélan's rebuttal here.

Monday, July 01, 2002

GROUNDSWELL AGAINST THE ELVES. Apparently my elves post has gotten some more attention. See HokiePundit (analogizing various races of Middle Earth to various European nations); Distorting the Medium (calling the piece "funny"); Centrepullball ("a thoughtful twist"); and even a nod from Instapundit himself. It's nice to know you're making a difference and getting the message out.
TURNING TURNBULL'S BULL. Craig Biggerstaff weighs in with some thoughts on the marriage penalty, partly in response to my first post on the subject, as well as criticizing Douglas Turnbull's commentary. Turnbull complains about an "annoying bit of sophistry" -- yes, I got excited for a moment, but unfortunately he was not referring to anything I said, but to mainstream political opposition to the marriage "penalty" in general. Turnbull essentially invokes the concept of imputed income (income that slides under the radar of the tax system, as when someone does housework for themselves, or mows the lawn, or the like) to argue that the marriage penalty actually makes good economic sense:
[A] married couple living together has substantially more disposable income than two single people making the same salaries. As such, the married couple is taxed more. And if you support a graduated tax schedule, you should support this outcome as well.

In fact, I’ll go further and say that, for most people, even including the marriage penalty, a married couple will end up with significantly more disposable income (after taxes) than two single people with the same salaries. So the whole debate about the marriage penalty is complete nonsense. It’s a debate over a non-issue; the pretense that there is a financial penalty to getting married is simply wrong. There actually is a substantial financial benefit to getting married.
A great point on first inspection. Of course, imputed income wreaks havoc among economists and tax policymakers, and always has, so they generally tend to try and ignore it. But housewives or househusbands undoubtedly create unrecognized and untaxable income, and surely even when two working people get married, they benefit from economies of scale. But Turnbull's point notwithstanding, we really don't have a measure for the income created by marriage, at least not one we can all agree on. The marriage penalty might be too high to offset the imputed income created by marriage, or it might be too low.

Basically Turnbull is arguing against the version of the marriage penalty criticism that he already admits to be fallacious -- that it's a penalty against marriage in general. The remaining criticism of the so-called penalty -- that it penalizes two-earner families relative to their one-earner counterparts -- is not addressed by Turnbull's invocation of imputed income. In fact, inasmuch as one-earner families presumably have even more imputed income created by the homemaker spouse, we can easily turn Turnbull's bull on its head. He argues against the criticisms in the popular debate; but actually the ideas he uses can be made to serve critics of the marriage penalty as it actually operates: to penalize two-earner couples vis-a-vis their one-earner counterparts. Since one-earner couples have more imputed income than two-earner couples, the disparity between treatment of two-earner couples and one-earner couples is magnified even further if we take imputed income into account. If we're talking about the relative tax effects on one and two-earner couples, Turnbull's imputed income point actually cuts the other way, and becomes yet another criticism of the marriage penalty.

Biggerstaff, however, beats me to the real uppercut against Turnbull's argument -- and maybe even against my initial social conservatism rant -- the imputed income Turnbull talks about is really the result of cohabitation, not marriage:
There are definite financial benefits to cohabitation, but it is a fallacy to assume that these benefits only accrue to the married. If there is a tangible financial benefit that occurs solely upon legal marriage, I'd like to hear about it.
(Great point, though I must note that for one-earner cohabitators, they actually do get a tax benefit upon marriage, which is tangible and financial. I also note that there's a great deal I like about what Turnbull has to say, but I let my opinions be driven by the headlines that could accompany them, and "Turning Turnbull's Bull" was too good to pass up. Apologies, Douglas.)

Sunday, June 30, 2002

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DISNEY. After seeing Disney's new animated feature, Lilo & Stitch, I was reminded of Sasha Volokh's outstanding article about the role of property in Disney movies. In particular, Volokh juxtaposes the competing visions of property in Pocahontas ("environmentalist anti-property message") with those in Lion King ("property as a necessary condition for stability, prosperity and environmental protection") and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (property as sanctuary from oppressive authorities; property as a bulwark against tyranny and intolerance) (Warning: spoiler below; don't read if you want to see the movie without knowing about the plot)

In Lilo & Stitch, a mad scientist in some far-off galaxy creates "Number 626" through genetic tampering. Along with being an "abomination" according to the alien tribunal, the cute-and-cuddly blue monster is actually incredibly dangerous -- quick, strong, smart, and lacking any real desires save destruction of large cities. 626 escapes in an exciting space battle and, after making the jump to lightspeed, crashes his ship on one of the Hawaiian islands. Unable to cross water because of his density, 626 is stuck. Meanwhile, the alien authorities decide not to destroy Earth to kill 626 because, as a pesky alien bureaucrat points out, Earth is home to an endangered species protected by the galactic federation: mosquitos. Instead, the aliens send the mad scientist and the bureaucrat to track 626 down and capture it. In order to escape his hunters, 626 poses as a dog and is adopted by the lonely but quirky Lilo, a little girl who names him Stitch. Lilo's parents are dead, and she is being raised by her older sister Nani, who is having difficulty handling the responsibilities of working to support them and simultaneously raising the feisty Lilo. With the ultra-destructive Stitch in the picture, who Lilo loves, everything falls apart, and the social worker is about to take Lilo away when both Stitch and Lilo are captured by alien forces. Stitch breaks out then goes to save Lilo, wreaking plenty of havoc in the process. In the end, galactic authorities prepare to take Stitch away, but Lilo comes forward and presents her license from the dog pound -- she annouces that she bought Stitch for 2 dollars, and that if the galactic authorities take Stitch away, it would be stealing. Always ones to obey rules, the kind-hearted galactic leader agrees that Stitch should stay there, and places Stitch and his "family" under the protection of the space federation. Everyone lives happily ever after.

First of all, one of the key jokes in the film -- that the aliens have been bamboozled into believing that Earth is a wildlife refuge for mosquitos and that humans are important as mosquitos food supply -- lampoons the excesses of environmentalism. One for Lion King, zero for Pocahantas.

But Lilo & Stitch also goes in some new directions, pitting the safety of the entire galaxy from a dangerous genetic experiment run amok against a two-dollar contract. In the end, the two-dollar contract wins out. Of course, this is played for the cute ending it is. But it also represents a view that individual ownership should, at least in some circumstances, trump collective security. It's not really a view I much agree with -- Stitch had done what must have been thousands of dollars in property damage to the island, and was an even greater danger if he ever got off the island, and allowing Lilo to endanger countless people and their property by "holding out" seems to accord just too much weight to private ownership. Private ownership is important, yes, but that should not be the end of the inquiry; inasmuch as a free-ranging Stitch endangered others' equally legitimate property ownership, seizure with compensation to Lilo seems a much fairer balancing of everyone's interests. (Although talk of the hyper-intelligent Stitch's price and value smacks of slavery). So there you have it -- by ending the story with Lilo's assertion of a property right over Stitch, Disney is doing its part to create a generation of children with a one-sided conception of property.

We also get a glimpse of Disney's position on genetic experimentation (and presumably cloning, stem-cell research, and the like). Stitch is the project of a genetic experiment. Echoing modern opponents of genetic experimentation, the alien tribunal calls Stitch an "abomination" because he was the product of a lab, and imprisons him (though he escapes). As the audience comes to identify with the irrepressable hijinks of Lilo and Stitch, the alien pronouncements against genetic tampering seem more and more unreasonable; we're pulling for the four-armed blue rascal. In Lilo & Stitch, we see that far from disaster, genetic tampering can result in creatures with cool powers.

So, to wrap up the messages of Lilo & Stitch: environmentalism is silly, property rights are absolute and never conflict, and genetic experimentation is cool. I might not agree with the entirety of the Lilo & Stitch plank, but at least Disney took a stand and kept it interesting. It was, after all, a comedy.

My bizarre musings notwithstanding, I thought Lilo & Stitch was an excellent movie -- always funny yet at times strangely touching. Though Disney cut some corners with the animation, Lilo & Stitch is definitely a welcome addition to the canon after some of the studio's recent fare.
MORE ON MINORITY REPORT. My brother Brélan today pointed out another problem with Minority Report that I thought worth fleshing out here: Why are the precrime authorities so darn Draconian with their punishments? The normal would-be criminal has their crime stopped, and then is “haloed”, that is, has some kind of neural device attached to their head which utterly paralyzes them. Then the haloed criminals are loaded into some kind of Matrix-esque body storage system where they apparently remain imprisoned forever.

I think it’s worth noting that presently, we aren’t that harsh even with most people who commit crimes, let alone those who are stopped before they go through with it. True, some murderers are executed and some are given life with or without possibility of parole, but quite a few are not “taken out of circulation” forever. Not to mention that the kinds of “depraved heart” and “heat of passion” murders depicted in the movie – i.e., a husband walks in on his cheating wife and lover in flagrante delicto and is about to kill them by stabbing with a pair of scissors – would almost certainly not be grounds for life imprisonment.

Yet, in Minority Report, just such crimes are grounds for life imprisonment, except that the crimes never actually happen because they are prevented by precrime. It’s unclear to me why the criminal justice system of future DC goes so far. There’s no need for retribution since the crime never happened. The whole “locking up people dangerous to the community” argument (deterrence) no longer holds, because precrime stops murders from happening in the first place; it’s not like the would-be murderers are going to kill again if they remain on the streets. (Of course, if you’re one of those who believe it’s not the act of killing someone but the guilty mind that desired to kill that deserves punishment, then maybe lifetime haloing is justified, but I still prefer to punish acts more stringently than thoughts.)

If anything, precrime seems to present the ideal opportunity for a rehabilitative criminal justice system, one that focuses on taking would-be murderers and reintegrating them into society. Unlike our own time, in which we are leery of wholehearted experiments with rehabilitative criminal justice systems out of fear of putting dangerous criminals on the streets, in the precrime era there’s no reason not to try – if the rehabilitation program fails and the killers strike again, they’ll be stopped, so what’s the big fear?

Better yet, would-be murders could be slapped with a stiff, revenue-raising fine. Since murders can be so easily stopped, locking people up doesn’t seem to make much sense. If an attempted – and stopped – murder was turned into a basically taxable event, the government could turn a profit on precrime rather than enduring the expense of locking people up forever in state-of-the-art neuroprisons.

In the end, the fact that haloed prisoners are apparently incarcerated for life may be explained more by the symbolic value of doing so than any retributive or deterrence-based purpose. Total punishment for trying to commit a crime that could never happen can be explained no other way than that policymakers were out to make an impression, perhaps trickling down to smaller-time criminals who precrime could never catch (it only prevents murders). Still, I have to think locking the cheated-on husband away for the rest of his life is going too far, especially when (1) he didn’t actually kill anyone and (2) modern criminal justice systems wouldn’t lock him away forever even if he did kill. Symbolic ends should not be achieved by imposing disproportionate punishments on anyone, whether they committed a crime or not. Unfortunately, dystopian fantasy stories may not be the only places where such thinking prevails.

(See my earlier discussion of the movie.)

Friday, June 28, 2002

(b) Conduct during playing.--During a rendition of the national anthem--
(1) when the flag is displayed--
(A) all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart;
(B) men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart...
MORE ON HEADDRESSES. A similar problem to that discussed below is seen in 4 U.S.C. §9:
§ 9. Conduct during hoisting, lowering or passing of flag
During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag or when the flag is passing in a parade or in review, all persons present except those in uniform should face the flag and stand at attention with the right hand over the heart. Those present in uniform should render the military salute. When not in uniform, men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Aliens should stand at attention. The salute to the flag in a moving column should be rendered at the moment the flag passes.
I have to admit, I still don't see what is accomplished by not asking non-uniformed women to comply as well; they're citizens too. And I'm still scratching my head over that "headdress" business.

Thursday, June 27, 2002

ANOTHER CHALLENGE TO THE PLEDGE? There've been a lot of rumblings on the blogs about the recent 9th Circuit decision holding the "under God" part of the pledge statute an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause. (For some balanced discussion, see Prof. Volokh's commentary). Rather than talk about the establishment clause issue -- there's already a vast chorus, and I'd add little, plus the Supreme Court is going to reverse this 5-4 anyway -- I thought I'd consider another potential legal problem with the pledge statute, 4 U.S.C. §4:
The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.", should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.
Headdress? Where did Congress get that?

Seriously, though, I couldn't help but note that the statute reads "When not in uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart." Apparently non-uniformed women (note it neutrally says "persons in uniform") don't have to do anything. So there you have it: the statute classifies on the basis of gender. Under the equal protection clause, such a gender-based classification must survive intermediate scrutiny, that is, it must serve important governmental ends and the means used to achieve those ends must be substantially related to the ends, or be struck down. (Whatever that means -- I admit I haven't really been able to figure it out.) Even though the statute doesn't really have any bite -- people aren't required to say the pledge or salute the flag, Barnette -- such a classification is still of at least symbolic significance. In order to comply with the official pledge, men have to do more than women. Without combat risk or pregnancy-related biological differences in play, I'm not sure gender discrimination in the pledge statute can be said to survive intermediate scrutiny, especially when keeping VMI all-male didn't survive it. Based on VMI and similar precedents, this element of 4 U.S.C. §4 could theoretically be grounds for a successful suit striking the gender discriminatory part of the statute. It just goes to show that seemingly sacrosanct government institutions can pretty easily have at least potential legal flaws with them. That is to say, there's an argument based on mainline equal protection law (though courts are always prone to carving out exceptions). They probably wouldn't carve one out here -- unlike striking out "under God," I don't think 99 senators would oppose changing "men" to "persons." So such a suit could have a chance of success.

Of course, I would be pretty surprised if anyone brought such a suit; until then, it's purely academic. Just because something could be done doesn't mean it will. There are lots of potentially "unconstitutional" statutes floating around, but the doctrine doesn't matter until it actually gets before a court.

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

THE TWENTY-SIX-MILE LIE. The story of Pheidippides' famous run from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce the news of the Greek army's victory over the Persians, after which he collapsed from exhaustion and died, has troubled me for some time. As the familiar test of endurance in our own time takes its name from these purported events, we moderns perhaps have some stake in protecting the traditional account, but that's no reason to perpetuate untruths.

My problem with the canonical version is a simple one: Where were the horses? Sending messengers 26 miles to deliver a message (indeed, Pheidippides had apparently gone over a hundred miles the day before from Athens to Sparta, to beg the gerontocracy for Spartan military muscle at Marathon) seems pretty foolish if you have horses on hand. The Athenian military may have been based on infantry hoplites, but the fact they weren't cavalry-centric doesn't mean they didn't have horses. Ancient Greek culture clearly shows exposure to horses (think Pegasus or Hercules and the Augean stables), and if you're ever going to use your horses, getting messages around in wartime seems the time to do it. Because of this, I've long felt there was something fishy about the classic marathon tale.

I've let this suspicion ferment for a while without doing anything about it -- I'm a far cry from a classicist and I don't have everyday exposure to resources for resolving this question without going a little out of my way. Whenever I discussed the issue with people (i.e., my dad), I got responses based on the hilliness of Greece in general, and specifically the terrain surrounding the plains of Marathon, which might have made it difficult for the Greeks to pony-express it.

But yesterday I got my hands on F.J. Frost, The Dubious Origins of the 'Marathon', 4 American Journal of Ancient History 159-63 (1979). While I'm the first to admit that publication in an academic journal is no seal of uncontrovertible truth, it is nice to know that I have an expert on my side. Frost talks at length about whether the original runner's name was really Philippides and "Pheippides" was a copyist's error, as well as how various versions of the story from Herodotus got passed down through the hands of Plutarch and his ilk, and was finally whipped into truly modern shape in Robert Browning's 1879 poem from Dramatic Idylls. This is all very interesting, and probably would be even more so if I knew what Frost was talking about, but more important is what he has to say about what I really am concerned with -- the horses:
Unfortunately for the legends of long distance runners, someone in one of the many villages along the route undoubtedly jumped on a horse and swiftly outdistanced those on foot.
For a moment I felt validated, but then I realized Frost had preempted my marthon myth-busting argument with an article written the year I was born. There is nothing new under the sun.

Seriously, though, Frost's article makes some nice points, and in the end we have to chalk up the marathon story not to athleticism but to the obscuring mists of a Herodotus-to-Plutarch "telephone game." As Frost aptly observes:
For all we know, every great battle in antiquity eventually attracted anecdoctal embroidery like this, with a runner arriving at the gates of the victorious city, gasping out the good news and breathing his last.
In the end, the lesson of the Marathon Myth is one we already knew: show some healthy skepticism whenever you hear anyone tell you "the fish was THIS big..."

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

MORITZ REPORT ON MINORITY REPORT. Just saw the new Tom Cruise vehicle Minority Report last weekend. All around not a bad flick, but the plot holes left enough room to parallel-park an aircraft carrier. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t read further; this could spoil it for you, or even worse, it might make no sense. So here are my problems with Minority Report:
  • It’s awfully convenient that the pre-cogs’ amazing predictive powers are so perfectly limited to the District of Columbia.
  • Early in the movie, there’s a great deal of exposition about how the pre-cogs can only see murders (and not other crimes) in advance, because of the way murders rend some interpersonal-numinous fabric. But then as soon as Tom Cruise is on the run with his kidnapped female pre-cog, suddenly she can predict that it’s about to start raining, that he should stand in a particular spot, and the like.
  • The precrime progam is based on these three very rare pre-cogs – so rare that the director had to commit murder to gain access to a third pre-cog – and yet precrime is about to go national. How is beyond me – where are they going to get more pre-cogs?
  • Biggest of all the holes, early in the movie Tom Cruise spends quite a lot of time finding out from the developers of precrime about so-called “minority reports”, suppressed visions by one of the pre-cogs of an alternative future where a murder doesn’t happen. (Minority reports would be the psychic’s version of reasonable doubt). Yet, in the end, there were no minority reports – the visions of Cruise “committing murder” and of Agatha’s (the female pre-cog’s) vision of her mother being killed turned out to be 100% correct; it was just that in the latter case the visions were misinterpreted by technicians. So the system was perfect after all…which leads one to wonder why reports were being suppressed earlier in the movie. Apparently the movie takes its title from a red herring.
Overall, in my opinion, the movie failed to realize its considerable potential. It presented an interesting moral dilemma – if people's actions can be predicted, should they be locked up in advance and prevented from engaging in criminal activity? This question, the core question of the movie, pits individual rights and individual dignity against the overall good of the community. Would such a regime, where all criminals were brutally stopped before they even acted, be a utopia or a distopia? Do we demand the right to commit crimes and face the penalties ex post, rather than ex ante? Yet, instead of really letting us ponder the interesting issues, Spielberg cheated by predicating the whole precrime program on murder of a mother in order to take her pre-cog daughter away, polluting the whole program with cinematic original sin. Don’t think we didn’t notice your sleight-of-hand, Steven.

(For a more comprehensive discussion of the movie, see what The Indepundit has to say, particularly regarding various high-tech constitutional violations with which the movie abounds.)
SOME COGENT CRITICISM of my marriage penalty post over at Dean's World. Dean's major beef is that I have set up a straw person to attack, a vision of social conservatism that doesn't really exist:
[W]here are these conservatives who would, as a matter of course, advocate legal penalties for people who don't live like Ward and June Cleaver?
It's a good point, though I'm not sure that Pat Buchanan's commitment to "equal pay for equal work" extends to, say, striking down a state law that gives civil service job preference to war veterans (a group women have a harder time getting into) for the highest paying jobs, but cuts out the veteran preference as applied to lower-paying secretarial spots. Additionally, Dean's comment notwithstanding, right now we do just happen to live under a regime which doles out tax benefits to those who live like Ward and June Cleaver and penalizes two-earner couples. And even if two-earner families filed separately, they still wouldn't get the same tax benefit as one-earner families get from filing jointly. If one-earner couples get treated better than the "baseline", to my mind that's just another way of saying two-earner couples get penalized.

Finally, I ask Dean if he really believes that lots of mainline conservative voters don't think many modern problems would go away if married women worked less and were more focused on family, home, and child-rearing. Unlike him, I actually don't believe there's anything particularly insane about such a view, though it's certainly not the only view possible. If you do agree with this view, however, there are at least some reasons why you shouldn't be against the marriage penalty. And yet people who I think do hold that view are, as far as I can tell, often reflexively against the marriage penalty. In any event, thanks go out to Dean for keeping me honest.

Monday, June 24, 2002

IN DEFENSE OF THE ELVES. I've received quite a bit of pro-elf email since my post on that subject. (And yes, it's "Elrond", not "Elron"; my apologies.) In light of this, it only seems fair to include the most encyclopedic response I've gotten to date:
I am writing to you concerning an article u wrote and posted in the section of your web site, rant zone. The article in question is about how the Elves of Tolkien's Middle Earth did nil to actually help and/or save Middle Earth from its imminent downfall. In it you stated that first of all, in the time period of The Lord of the Rings, the Elves did nothing but give out a few gifts and call together a council. However, had you actually looked into what you intended to "rant" about, you'd find a much different point of view upon you. Firstly, it was an army of combined forces from Lindon, Rivendell, and the few remaining forces of Arnor(the first two being Elven realms) that destroyed the tyranny of the witch-realm of Angmar, set up by the lord of the Nazgul in the beginning of the third age. Later on in this age, during the war of the ring, the Elves were not able to further aid the fellowship for their remaining forces were defending their own realms, wh! ! ich were on the brink of destruction. Galadriel's own realm of Lorien was brutally attacked three time during this period in time. Legolas's own homeland of Mirkwood was under constant harassment. Rivendell, the dwelling of Elrond, has no standing army with which to attack an enemy, it had been sieged already and had used up it's remaining forces in putting down that siege. And as for Lindon, it had lost, by this time, so many forces in the battles it took place in( most of which were helping save the realms of men) that it could not afford to send out an army with out the threat of being over-run. Still, it managed to keep it's navies out at sea, so as to disrupt the Corsairs of Umbar from raiding the coast of Gondor.

That covered, we'll move back to the second age. In this age, the Elves did much in the way of "saving the world from darkness". During the first part of the age, the people of Gil-Galad(the Elven king at the time), traveled many times to Numenor, to visit the men there, all the while attacking and defending from the armies of Sauron. However, it was the men of Numenor, and there foolish ignorance that were the cause of its(Numenor) sinking. After this was formed the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, under the leadership of Gil-Galad and Elendil the Tall( the King of the Dunedain). They eventually forced their way into Mordor and in the end Sauron came forth himself, at the front of his armies, to do battle. Now you put down Elrond for not doing anything to stop Sauron during this last struggle, well, he couldn't. Gil-Galad and Elendil went up Mount Doom to find Sauron and destroy him. When he went up the mountain, Gil-Galad gave control of the army to Elrond-to command unto victory. It was Gil-Galad and Elendil who destroyed Sauron, not Isildur as you claim, he went up the mountain later on with Elrond and Cirdan, and cut the ring from the hand of Sauron. Then he failed to comprehend the magnitude of the moment and did not destroy the ring, but kept it- thus dooming Middle Earth to endure another rising of Sauron, as the wise of the world learned, Elrond among them. So far you can, hopefully, see the terrible mistake you made in being too hasty in your judgment of the Elves. Though I am not through, you portray in your article, the orcs, trolls, Saruman, and even Sauron himself as partially, if not totally, good. The feud between Elves and orcs is very ancient. It began mostly because orcs were created from Elves captured by Morgoth in the first age. He then unleashed this abomination upon the free peoples of the world without cause. And it is so that Elves have lost many kindred to orc savagery. If the orcs are so good, then why do they align themselves with a creature so foul as Sauron and Morgoth? The same goes for trolls. As for Saruman, he wanted the ring for himself, granted that in the beginning he was good. However, he turned to evil, and wanted to use the ring to rule the world himself. Sauron, I can't even begin to understand why you could view him as even remotely good. He wanted in the second age to destroy Numenor, he was the one who cause the Numenoreans to rebel against the Valar. He also tried to abolish the realms the Elves fought so hard, and lost so much life to keep. Such arrogance, as is displayed in your ignorent, insolent article, demands that it would be wise to go back and actually look at these books and reference materials, so as to see the err of you ways.

I have to admit the author of this response commands knowledge of substantially more Middle Earth lore than me (and is to be congratulated for apparently making it through the Simarillion), and I have to thank him for sharing such a wealth of knowledge. Nonetheless, even on the author's own terms, I remain skeptical -- this explanation is derived from a history as told by the elves, but what if that history itself is skewed? Frankly, I think we have to look at what the Elves do in the "present", and I remain unimpressed. Additionally, for the most part the author justifies his conclusion that orcs are evil by reference to their association with Sauron and battles against the elves, and thus argues that elves must be good. For me this just isn't persuasive; it is an example of "begging the question" by assuming the answer to the question of whether good and evil in middle earth is aligned as Tolkein presents it. In my opinion, the author also tries to have it both ways -- the elves are praised for fighting hard against the orcs, but the orcs are criticized for their brutality against the elves. The reality of middle earth, I think, was much less black and white than the author of the above response post suggests. Yet, I have to thank him for such a thoughtful reply. Above all else, it is a real compliment to know something you wrote is provoking so much thought in readers out there in the blogosphere.
PUT BLOGGER ON A DIET. I'm pretty new to blogging, but already I've seen a lot of the "I had this great post, but then blogger gobbled it up" line. After losing a message, people are too tired to re-write it, and the result is a tragedy -- every day, insightful or entertaining (as well as asinine) points of view are lost to blogger's voracious maw.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There are some very easy steps to avoid bloggergobble, and I really wish people would be conscientious about using them, because I for one want to see what they have to say. On the one hand you can you can draft in a file saved to your desktop and then cut and paste from there; if blogger crashes and you lose the post, you can just cut-and-paste from the document on your hard drive and your jeremiad is saved. Much easier, and what I always do, is to simply select the whole message and copy it before clicking "post and publish." If you get logged out, you can always log back in and press paste, and your message is saved. Either way, it cuts down on lost posts. I know this is simple stuff, but if people would simply copy the text they're about to post before clicking "post & publish," who knows how much more wisdom -- and idiocy -- would be out there for all to enjoy.
MORE ON VILLIFYING THE GOOD GUYS. Been getting some lively responses to my Elvish Conspiracy post, as people apparently find interesting the trope of taking villains and explaining their point of view in a way that makes them seem unvillainous while painting the "good guys" as really being baddies. Some find it hilarious, while there are always purists who find it maddening. I got very similar reactions to my piece on Titan A.E. and the Drej, which argued that humans, not the alien Drej, were the real villains of the movie, and the Drej were just misunderstood. In that piece, I suggested that non-speciesist movies like Star Wars are preferable:
[In Star Wars,] it's not about what species you are or who's human and who's not human. Instead, it's about your politics -- are you with the Empire or against it? Ultimately, let's hope that's the direction we're headed, to a future where aliens are judged not by the color of their exoskeleton or the number of mandibles or orifices, but by the content of their character.
Of course, in Star Wars there's a flip to make as well -- the Empire brought order, while the rebels simply wanted to destroy, no doubt sending the galaxy back into the dark ages like hyperdive-wielding Visigoths. Jonathan Last beat me to the punch in an excellent article critiquing the rebels and praising the Empire. Indeed, whether it's the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, we should look deeper than the conclusory label of which side is called "dark" by the author, and actually consider the substantive merits of the various sides.

Saturday, June 22, 2002

MARRIAGE PENALTY REVISITED. See Sasha Volokh's rejoinder to my marriage penalty post:
Garrett argues that social conservatives should love the so-called marriage penalty, which is actually a marriage bonus for traditional one-earner families and a penalty for two-career families, while liberals should be the ones complaining. He concludes that conservative politicians are merely shrewd about getting votes and that "[w]hether it helps build traditional family values or not, fighting the 'marriage penalty' is a more compact and better-packaged meme that brings voters into the fold."

I think Garrett ignores those conservatives or libertarians-in-the-conservative-fold, like myself, who just dislike any distortion of the marriage decision, whether it's a bonus or a penalty. Note that the marriage bonus/penalty is a byproduct of progressive taxation. You could reduce the marriage penalty by fiddling with brackets, but this would exacerbate the marriage bonus -- which is another reason (though possibly not a dispositive one) to oppose progressive taxation and favor a flat tax.

Indeed, I was intentionally ignoring fiscal conservatives or libertarians like Sasha because the interesting inconsistency was not in their at least internally consistent position but in the internally inconsistent position of social conservatives. While the fiscal conservative arguments may have some merit to them, I don't think it is opposition to "any distortion of the marriage decision, whether it's a bonus or a penalty" that has the majority of non-Wall-Street-Journal-reading Republicans riled up, or in fact, that is the mainline Republican statement against the marriage penalty. (Remember, the "no penalty" "baseline" is actually a tax benefit to married couples that follow the 1950s model). Of course, it is always possible that "socially conservative" politicians truly oppose the marriage penalty on the grounds Sasha articulates, but simply use the internally inconsistent message of "we need to support family values, not hurt them" because the fiscal conservative or libertarian line doesn't make as good a soundbyte. Possible, though I prefer to take people at their word.

Sasha is also correct that the marriage penalty is a "byproduct of progressive taxation," but that doesn't make the marriage penalty much of an argument against progressive taxation; the marriage penalty is also a byproduct of taxing two married people differently from two unmarried individuals. Rather than switching to a flat tax, taxing all individuals as individuals seems a much less radical way to fix the problem in a way that's fair across the board. While there may be reasons for supporting switch to a flat tax, eradication of the marriage penalty is not a particularly good one -- it's using a missle to kill a mouse when you have a perfectly good mousetrap in hand. I think the reason we don't simply switch to one progressive column for all people, but instead have two columns -- one for marrieds, one for unmarrieds -- is that lots of people actually like the marriage bonus, believing, I suppose, that marriage is a cornerstone of the republic or something like that.

But point taken as to the part about ignoring libertarians, and thanks to Sasha for keeping me honest. I made the original post not to advocate one policy solution or another, but merely to point out a particular irony that infects the popular debate about the marriage penalty.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

DISPELLING ELVISH PROPAGANDA. Something is rotten in the state of Middle Earth. And it's not the rise of Sauron's forces. It's the Elves. On the surface, one gets the impression that the Elves in Lord of the Rings are pretty swell. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that something is seriously amiss.

Perhaps you will not agree, but for all their grand talk of saving the world, it seems Elves play a rather limited role actually doing anything about stopping Sauron. Sure, the Elves give away one or two presents to the Fellowship (the rest they keep for themselves), and sure, the Elves organize a council, but who do they actually put in harm's way? Really only Legolas. Not to slight Legolas, an Elf for whom I have the utmost respect, but this is a pretty meager contribution to the cause for the supposed archenemies of Mordor. Perhaps Elves fear to put their immortal lives in harm's way when they can have others do their bidding? Throughout Lord of the Rings, the Elves are consummate hypocrites: Elrond chides the dwarves for "hiding in their mountains", but all he and the rest of the Elves do is hide in their forests. Elrond may heal a person or two, and Galadriel may dole out a gift here and there, but all in all, it's a pretty weak showing.

Elves may be mostly talk in Lord of the Rings, but even their talk about saving the world from "darkness" is really not all that admirable. Elves want to save the world because it is a world that benefits them, and they've constructed a useful typology of good and evil which serves their ends. Of course the elves don't want change, safe in beautiful country-club-esque forest homes like Rivendell while everyone else scrapes by in the dirty, muck-a-day world of Middle Earth. When it comes down to it, the one thing the Elves really do seem to care about is keeping everyone else out of their beautiful forests. Above all else, Elves are defenders of the status quo. They are the Middle Earth's reactionaries.

You may protest that I am being unfair to the Elves; that while perhaps they could have done more at present time, one need only look to the past for examples of Elvish bravery. But can we trust accounts of the past? After all, the ancient histories of Middle Earth are all written in Elvish; of course they would portray themselves as the good guys. But keep in mind that the Elvish history is a history told by the conquerors. Without an Elvish Procopius, we will never get the full story. And even in the history as told by them and their apologists, we can pick up signs that the Elves were really no different in the past. Their legends paint man as weak; the story is that Isildur blew it for all the world when he failed to follow Elrond's orders and destroy the One Ring when he had the chance. Perhaps there is something to this, but then again, while Elrond was cheerleading from the sidelines, Isildur did all the dirty and dangerous work battling Sauron, putting his life on the line, and actually cutting the ring from Sauron's hand. One almost feels some pride in Isildur's defiant refusal to be a puppet to the manipulative Elrond. If Elrond wanted the Ring destroyed so badly, he should have done something about it rather than going home like a crybaby to concoct a propaganda tale to force gullible Men and Hobbits to do the Elves' bidding for the next three millennia.

While the Elves are problematic, one doesn't have to look far for some more positive figures in Tolkein's wonderfully imagined fantasy world. For instance, despite all the jabber about Saruman's treachery and evil, building an Orcish army and tearing down the trees at Isengard, he was a man of considerable vision with a serious desire to improve the world. After all, the Elves had been in power for centuries, with things in Middle Earth staying pretty much the same. Orcs were always treated as second-class citizens by the other races and not invited to share fairly in the bounty of a world in which they belonged as much as anyone. Orcs might be ugly, but that doesn't mean they don't have feelings. Ultimately, while the Elves would be content to gaze out contentedly from the porticos and verandas of their forest mansions, as Orcs struggled by unemployed, Saruman tried to change the sorry social order of Middle Earth for the better. One may question his methods, but it is difficult not to respect his ingenuity in finding ways to employ the idle Orcs in his region as construction workers and military contractors. The Orcs, no less than any other creatures in Middle Earth, deserve the dignity and satisfaction that an honest day's work provides, and Saruman gave it to them without recourse to a welfare state. Saruman gave the Orcs a hand-up, not a hand-out.

Indeed, the state of relations between the races of Middle Earth had always been reprehensible, and the Elves did nothing to remedy this; if anything, they just fanned the fires of hatred. None of the members of the anti-Sauron alliance, Elves least of all, ever gave the Orcs or the Goblins or the Trolls any respect whatsoever, when all these misunderstood creatures have ever wanted was a fair share of the beautiful world the Elves had taken for their own. The Elves' blindness to their own bigotry suggests a need for radical action on the part of underappreciated citizens of Middle Earth, and Sauron - the most unappreciated of them all - stepped forward as their leader. Sure, Sauron may have been a bit overzealous in his pursuit of social justice, but at least he was willing to do something, to shake things up, to give Orc children a chance to grow up in a better neighborhood than the slums of Mordor. That's a good deal more than we can say for the Elves.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

ENVIRONMENTAL SMACKDOWN: Just saw that the old World Wrestling Federation ("WWF") has been pinned in a House of Lords cage match against the World Wildlife Fund ("WWF"), and is now going by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. ("WWE"). Somehow, this whole situation just seems wrong -- what is the House of Lords doing meddling with the likes of The Rock? Maybe I missed something in history class, but didn't we (America) fight the Revolutionary War specifically so this kind of thing wouldn't happen? In any event, rather than "WWE", I think they should go with The Federation Formerly Known as WWF.
DO RULES RULE? One of the classic legal pivots involves debating whether a "rule" or a "standard" is preferable in a given situation. Much legal argument fluctuates between these two rhetorical modes, as explored in Duncan Kennedy's famous Form and Substance in Private Law Adjudication, 89 Harv. L. Rev 1685 (1976). But I was wondering today -- how do we tell rules from standards? Is it a rule or a standard that we use when deciding whether something is a rule or standard? I know, I know -- that way lies madness -- but seriously, could someone please tell me? I have to admit, Dunc's extended definition seem's decidely standardlike. (see, e.g., Kennedy at 1687-88, describing "formal realizability" as "the degree to which a legal directive has the quality of 'ruleness.'"). Does it matter that we don't have a rule for determining what is a rule? Does it matter that we merely can say it's formally realizable or determinate? I think it might, at least inasmuch as rule-worshippers may have to face some discomfort if they can't decide what to idolize and what to cast down without resorting to a standard.

Note: I do not believe asking whether we determine what is a rule and what a standard through a rule or a standard to be circular, at least operating on definitions of rule and standard that do not use the word rule or standard. I just think the best answer we have is "determinacy," which may in the end turn out to be not that much less arguable than "fairness."

Monday, June 17, 2002

FRO-YO PONDERINGS. Today at work I visited the Frozen Yogurt ("Fro-Yo") machine. Confronted with the choice between French Vanilla and Old World Chocolate, I balked and chose swirl, the half-and-half mix option. Instantly I regretted the decision. Like all Fro-Yo, the taste was a sorry shadow of real ice cream. But more disheartening than taste was the moral realization that, at heart, I'm nothing but an unprincipled compromiser. People who choose swirl are indecisive, are afraid of making tough decisions and sticking to their guns. Instead, they make the "safe" choice, and as a result never really experience the individual Fro-Yo flavors in all their unmitigated glory or failure. Caesar and Napoleon may have made mistakes, but I doubt they would have chosen swirl -- no, they knew how to make a decision. Instead of making a decision, I made an indecision, choosing to settle for the cone of mediocrity. Don't make the same mistake. Next time you visit the Fro-Yo machine, take a stand.

Friday, June 14, 2002

MARRIAGE PENALTY PARADOX. Just thinking about the "marriage penalty" and how it is most stridently opposed by social conservatives, on the grounds that marriage is an institution that should be encouraged in these sinful times. The penalty, though, is actually not on marriage itself, but on dual-earner couples where both spouses are earners, especially couples that earn equivalent amounts. Far from penalizing the nation's Cleaver families, the tax law actually benefits the traditional 1950s one-earner model. (See explanation that I won't bore you with here.)

On these facts, it looks like social conservatives should love the Internal Revenue Code's treatment of marriage -- families with stay-at-home moms get tax benefits; dual-worker families with women earners messing up American family values get penalized. Nothing here that should make Strom mad. If you think the phenomenon of the working mother contributes to many of today's social problems, as many quite reasonable people do, it would seem entirely reasonable to support a tax regime that gave bonuses to stay-at-home moms and slightly penalized moms who work. (Of course, such a regime couldn't avoid discriminating on basis of gender without also benefitting breadwinner women married to "Mr. Moms," hardly part of the conservative agenda, but the number of such couples is still small, and single-earner same-sex couples are kept out of the tax savings by state prohibition of same-sex marriage).

As the "marriage penalty" is part of a system that actually creates incentives for moms to stay at home and not work, you'd expect social conservatives to be pushing for more marriage penalty (and thus more marriage bonus for traditional couples), not less. Indeed, liberals should be the ones supporting elimination of the penalty, in order to remove one more burden from women's equal opportunity as workforce members. Yet, paradoxically, eliminating the marriage penalty has been a cornerstone of the Republican agenda since the Contract with America and bills that would eliminate or dampen its effect have been opposed by liberals, and one was even vetoed by Clinton. Go figure.

The real reason, no doubt, it that politicians, especially conservatives, aren't stupid when it comes to winning votes. Whether it helps build traditional family values or not, fighting the "marriage penalty" is a more compact and better-packaged meme that brings voters into the fold, be they pro-tradition, pro-marriage voters who might be more ambivalent about the "penalty" if they really understood its functioning, or dual-worker couples who, like everyone I've ever met, prefer to pay less taxes personally.

Monday, June 10, 2002

HORSING AROUND. I was just at the Belmont Stakes last Saturday, hoping to watch as War Emblem galloped into the history books. Instead, the poor horse fell down at the start and 70-1 longshot Savarra won (my money was on Magic Weisner (4th) and the wrong long-shot, Artax Too, but oh well). Losses aside, it was something else to see the spectacle. I hadn't realized you could just up and go, but some friends invited me and I hopped on the Long Island RR; all in all, it took less than 30 minutes to get from my apartment to the track, where you can just walk in and mingle with cooler-toting groundlings for only a dollar. Alas, we could have been in the grandstand, if only we had the foresight to get tickets (and bring our ascots). An unnamed friend, slightly peeved at all the jostling and spilled beer in our decidedly..."populist"...milieu, quipped: "If Thomas Jefferson could have seen this, he would have shot himself." (Of course, I have to disagree, though I did chuckle).

The culture of the racetrack, though, is pretty weird--and classist. It really was teeming with people, and large swathes of standing-room-only areas are accessible for only a buck (and the clubhouse for two), even on the biggest raceday of the year, while seersucker-clad elites lounge in the swanky restricted areas (i.e., with seating). I thought maybe such a nominal entry fee (a buck) was due to the fact that it was the betting that mattered to racetrack management, but then I heard that parimutual betting isn't all that profitable. Like every other business, the secret is the drinks.

Perhaps the real issue is not the spectators, but the horses: there would be no races without them, yet it's the owners who profit from the sweat of their, um, brow. Does this deny the basic horsehood of the equine contestants? Who knows, but animal-friendly Steven Wise, Peter Singer, or even Sasha Volokh might say so, or at least encourage the horses to form a union. On the other hand, does money really matter? Horses may be the real winners in the end: a star track runner's gold metal or Wheaties advertising deal pales in comparison next to a winning thoroughbred's remaining years as a premium stud.