Saturday, June 26, 2004

New Linguistics Blog 

Check out Literal Minded: Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally, a new blog from Neal Whitman, formerly of Agoraphilia. Neal has a Ph.D. in linguistics from Ohio State and currently teaches at Ohio University. He various linguistic-related materials all over the 'net are always interesting and informative.
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Friday, June 25, 2004

It's Been A While 

Since much talk about free trade, that is. I guess our political attention spans aren't long at all. But Daniel Drezner has this artice in The New Republic about American attitudes reagrding free trade. Apparently, most feel that free trade hurts the US. But there is good news:
But there is one silver lining to this phenomenon, which is that Americans are massive hypocrites. People may believe in mercantilism, but they don't act on those beliefs in large numbers...

...As citizens, Americans think of economic policy in mercantilist terms. But as consumers, they are quite content with free trade.
Related to trade, I have been reading Johan Norberg's wonderful "In Defence of Global Capitalism." Check it out.

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Radley Balko has his bulleted wrap-up of the TIME/ABC Obesity Summit. His conclusion:
This isn't to definitively say people like Paul Campos and Jeffrey Friedman are right, and the obesity warriors are wrong. But it is to say that we ought to have a debate, and the debate shouldn't be premised on the notion that we're already in full crisis mode, the sky is already hurtling earthward, and that the only real debate ought to be over which panoply of government programs we ought to implement to keep earth and sky from colliding...

...Let's first take the time to be sure we really do have the problem, and that the obesity hysteria doesn't soon go the way of media coverage of the "rash" of shark attacks and child kidnappings. Let's second take the time to be sure that if there is a problem, we define it accurately, based on sound science, and not on the dire predictions of a few people who have made careers of demonizing food.

Finally, even if we were to assume the worst-case scenario put forth by the anti-obesity activists, there's still a pretty sound case to be made that the whole issue is very much a private matter between overweight/obese people and their families, and shouldn't be addressed with invasive, far-reaching public policy that removes choices and restricts personal freedom.

That, too, is a case that needs to be made, but that you don't often find in the mainstream media.
Andy Duncan has this interesting post regarding spelling difference between British and American English.

The Whitman Brothers, guests at the Volokh Conspiracy this week, have stolen the show. Go read all their posts, especially Neil on "Backformation" and Glen on the economics of culture.

Finally, Matt Rustler at Stop the Bleating has some kind words for me. He also has some apt comments and critiques of my seat belt post. Go check him out.

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Thursday, June 17, 2004

Michael Moore 

On "Scarborough Country" (a usually horrible show) last night, there was a debate about Michael Moore new movie "Farenheit 9/11." I don't know what to think about this film, or whether I want to see it or not. I feel I have been burned by Moore to many times, and I feel he has lost all credibility with me.

Anyway the highlight of this otherwise turd of a television show was the presenec of Michael Wilson, film-maker currently working on the film, "Michael Moore Hates America." The film, according to his website:
Contrary to its title, Michael Moore Hates America isn’t a hatchet job on the filmmaker. It’s a journey across the nation where we meet celebrities, scholars and average folks alike, and we find out whether the American Dream is still alive! In the process, we’ll look at Michael Moore’s claims about the country, its people, and our way of life.
His film crew apparently tried to interview Moore, who, like many of the subjects in his film, walked away after having angry words for Wilson. That wouldn't be a big deal, I guess, if this was made by Bill O'Reilly. But Wilson is an intelligent, insightful, polite guy with a legitimate point-of-view. And I for one would like to see Moore display some courage and sit down with his worthy antithesis.

Either way, check out Moore this Friday at 9 PM (Eastern) on Dateline NBC.

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Seat Belt Laws 

The good surgeon has had his libertarian faith tempted by Statan:
While I consider myself a libertarian in many ways (for drug legalization, against government regulation of fast food, ect), there are some ways I diverge from libertarian orthodoxy. In other words when it comes to seat belt use requirements and motorcycle helmet laws I am a "small -l" libertarian, rather than a "large L" one. Some may think me hypocritical since I resent government interference with what people put in their mouths, how they educate their children, or do in their bedrooms; but am more than willing to go along with restrictions on how one rides a motorcycle or drives a car. They may be right. I'm sure it has to do with the patients I see in my trauma practice, and how many injuries and deaths could be avoided if people would buckle up or wear helmets.
I admire Dr. Parker's willingness to examine his own libertarian philosphy and look at the arguments in whole. I would hasten to clarify for any who might let the distinction blur, this is a discussion about the efficacy and prudence of seat belt laws for a given society, not of the efficacy and prudence of seat belt usage by an individual. Given that, lets look at the costs and benefits (or more importantly, the stated and commonly accepted costs and benefits) of seat belt laws.

  • Seat belt laws increase seat belt usage, and thus, save lives. These saved lives in aggregate entail all the subsequent benefits a single life entails.
  • Seat belt laws infer a societal benefit by aleviating the burden to the state of injured unbuckled drivers.

  • Seat belt laws cost money to enforce.
  • This is related to the fact that seat belt law enforcement takes away from enforcement of other crimes (drunk driving).
  • Seat belt laws currently cost money to advertise.
  • Seat belt laws erode our freedoms by introducing another sphere into which government can interfere.
Now it is important to understand the nature of the costs and benefits. The costs are all pretty much given values. They can (except for the last one) be determined simply by looking at various government and law enforcement data, and thus, are wholly uncontroversial. The benefits, on the other hand, all rest on the underlying assumption that seat belt laws save lives. Well, it turns out that this underlying assumption, or hypothesis would be a better word, can be emperically tested. And it just so happens that the studies that have been done that show that seat belt laws have no effect on driver mortality.

How could this be? Well, the probability that you will be a victim of driver mortality is the product of the probablity that you will be in a car wrck times the probability that you will die in that car wreck. And these studies, that Dr. Parker alluded to in his own post, have shown that seat belt laws decrease one (the odds you'll die in a given wreck) while increasing the other (the odds you'll be in a wreck). In the end it's a wash and seat belt laws do not change driver mortality. Thus, the underlying assumption, which all the benefits are based upon, are false, so the benefits fall something close to zero, meaning that the costs must outweigh them.

Some may object by stating that we could ratchet up our enforcement of seat belt laws and our enforcement of unsafe driving, for this would add to the benefits side. This is tempered by the fact that in so doing, you would also increase the costs. The net effect then would thankfully again be an empirical question, but does not bear any weight on the discussion of the satus quo (disregarding the still important fact that ir would be a violation of liberty). My personal opinion is that the costs would still supercede, but I am willing to admit that such opinion might be proven false.

In addition, I would like to briefly attack the underlying assumption of benefit #2 above: that seat belt laws are justified because we pay for the indigents who undertake risky behavior and then get hurt. This is a non-starter for me. I am always amused by this class of justiifation: the notion that one government interference (in this instance the tax that pays for the medically indigent) justifies a second interference to solve the disturbance caused by the first. There are two ways to approach a probelm caused by a government interference: 1) create a second, or 2) get rid of the first. Why does everbody accept #1 but fairly uniformly reject #2. That's a good recipe for a government that violates liberty. Dr. Parker's own analysis touched on this and comments on the possibility that there are ways to deal with this problem without violating liberty and expanding government power.

I'm glad Dr. Bard-Parker started this debate. I like the seat belt debate because it allows us all to argue using the same tools we use in other more contentious debate. This one does not get the blood boiling so decidedly, and fosters rationality that could possibly spread to other debates.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Bipartisan Forvever 

Russell Roberts reminds us that today's political scene isn't any more divisive than any other, and don't believe those who tell you it is:
As the caisson carrying Ronald Reagan's casket moved slowly up Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol, some news stations let us watch in silence. Others filled the moment with talk about the man and his era. One theme that kept recurring was how bitter and partisan Washington is these days and how it was different back in Reagan's time.

The media's nostalgia for a kinder and gentler Washington is a bit bizarre. Many of us have vivid memories of the 1980s. The Reagan era wasn't a bipartisan love fest. Reagan, like the current President, was mocked, derided and hated by much of the intelligentsia. Not surprisingly, this mood drifted into the politics of the day. Politics has been a nasty business in America since about, oh, 1800. The more things change the more things stay the same.
All political proceedings are in essence divisive and bipartisan:
Most of the work in Washington is a fight over who gets what. It's about dividing a pie among various groups, all of them hungry. In such settings, partisanship has to be the order of the day. And when Washington isn't handing out goodies, but is actually trying to fix something like Iraq or Medicare, it still isn't an engineering problem where you have to sit down and figure something out. Solving these problems involve deep philosophical questions that have nothing to do with compromise or geniality, the essence of bipartisanship.
And my favorite, form Roberts' blog at Cafe Hayek:
How could it be otherwise? Every President is divisive. That is the nature of politics. The only President in American history who wasn't divisive might be William Henry Harrison who died a month into office.

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Thursday, June 10, 2004

Facts and Fears 

Check out the link to the right that leads you to a blog at The American Council on Science and Health - called Facts and Fears - that deals with issues if health news and public health. Its effort is to clear up some of the myths and fears of health concerns often stirred up by political actors and the media. Looks good.

Check out recent posts about cancer rates and childhood obesity.

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Positive Vs. Negative Rights 

Since I'm the only blogger I know who hasn't weighed in on the subject, I'll jump into the fray. The topic at hand was started with this Slate piece that prompted Stephen Bainbridge to argue that the true protection of liberty can only be achieved by enforcing negative rights. Eugene Volokh has jumped in with many posts that argue Bainbridge overlooks the positive rights guaranteed by the Constitution of due process and other government protection. Read more at Catallarchy and follow all the links to read all the arguments.

Volokh fires the latest with this post listing the many definitions of rights. He wraps it all up with this about the Constitution and positive rights:
As I've mentioned above, the federal Constitution does secure a few positive rights. The clearest example is the Contracts Clause, which bars states from impairing the obligation of contracts, and thus mandates states to provide a forum for enforcing contracts. Under this Clause, people do have "[a] right entitling [them] to have another [the government] do some act for the benefit of the person entitled." (The Court has provided only weak protection for this right, which I think is a mistake, but the right still is a positive right.)

Likewise, the Takings Clause bars the government from interfering with my right to exclude others from my property. If I own some wooded land, the government can't just say "You must allow everyone onto the land." I think it follows that the government also can't simply refuse to enforce trespass laws, for instance by saying "The police and the courts shall not enforce civil or criminal trespass laws against those who trespass on others' woodland property, or who tear down fences protecting others' woodland property." Such a deprivation of legal protection would be close to legally destroying my property right. (It wouldn't be exactly the same, because it would still leave me with some negative right to be free of legal punishment for defending my property through force.) I think that such a denial of property protection probably would violate the Takings Clause.

In any case, the Contracts Clause example at least illustrates that the quotes Steve Bainbridge gives about the Constitution's securing only negative rights are not completely correct -- they are generally right, but they admit of some exceptions.

Many state constitutions provide more positive rights -- two prominent examples are the right to sue in court, and in many constitutions the right to a public education.
Volokh is a nationally renowned law professor, and I am but a lowly medical student, so I'll deserve what I get if I am fabulously wrong on this one; but I'll give it a shot.

All of the "positive rights" listed by Volokh as being Constitutionally protected are rights whose purpose is to protect our liberty. Before the Constitution, our naturlal rights gave us the right to protect our own liberty and execute justice when our rights are abridged. By signing the Constitution, we explicitly gave up (some of) those natural rights and handed over the power of protection and execution to the government. We did this to better serve justice and a civil society.

The point is that all these postive rights that Volokh lists are positive rights the government owes us specifically because we gave up those rights for ourselves. This fact makes them distinct from the claim of positive rights of education, health care, a job, and a pension. Because we did not give up the natural right to educate ourselve, improve our health, sell our employment, and save for our retirements when the Constitution was signed, the government does not have to provide these positive rights.

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Monday, June 07, 2004

Catching Up 

My computer is on the outs, so I have not been able to post. Here are a few things you should check out:
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