Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Soul of a Conservative

Let's consider the first part of the first sentence of George Will's column today:

"Most improvements make matters worse because most new ideas are regrettable".

I could agree that some improvements make matters worse because some new ideas are regrettable, but only a conservative pundit could lead off with the view that most improvements make matters worse because most new ideas are regrettable.

Of course I don't have a complete list of improvements and new ideas, and I haven't counted up to see whether there really are more good or bad improvements. (Guess what, neither has Will.) But what exactly is Will yearning for here? Shall we go back to the old ideas? Shall we get rid of the improvements? How far back do we have to go?

Which of the following improvements made matters worse: vaccination, air travel, telephones, television, computers, the Internet, and cell phones? Does Will not want to use digital cameras, ibuprofen, contact lenses, or laser printers?

Maybe I'm biasing the list by focusing on private-sector innovations instead of improvements and new ideas in governmental structure (which is what Will's column today is about) or those driven by the public sector. So how about the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and minorities, occupational safety, regulation of working hours, forbidding child labor, and seat belts? Does Will want to go back to the days when railroad brakemen had to ride on top of trains and duck when the train entered a tunnel, when young children worked in factories and coal mines, and when six percent of coal miners were killed every year?

OK, Prohibition didn't work out too well. Communism was a mistake too. But how conservative do you have to be to believe that most improvements make things worse?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iron Man Ironies

I saw "Iron Man" this weekend, and while I thought it was good for its genre -- I freely admit to being entertained -- I was somewhat disappointed by the physics. Of course the whole thing was a cinematic comic book, but when the hero is supposed to be a brilliant engineer, one expects at least a mild dose of reality. Here the physics was just part of the film's general otherworldliness. (Caution: spoilers ahead.)

This physics professor complains primarily that the amazing Iron Man suit would require too much power to carry around. Well, that, I think, can almost be forgiven -- a vital part of the premise was that Tony Stark, the hero, invents a fabulously miniaturized power source. Of course, if he'd really done that, one might imagine that when he gets home he would find better and more profitable things to do with it than to build a flying, fighting suit (zero emission cars? clean power plants?), but OK, he's in the weapons business, so that's what he naturally thinks about. But there were so many other bad physics cliches -- standing in a huge shower of falling broken glass without getting so much as a scratch; being 10 feet from an explosion that destroys a huge building, ditto -- that it required a little too much suspension of disbelief.

And the physics was just the beginning. What really got to me was the idea that all it takes is a supersuit to solve any military problem. There wasn't much recognition of the need for actionable intelligence. We already have the ability to make things blow up a long distance away. But you need to know what to blow up. It's one thing to put on a supersuit that can fly you halfway around the world in a few minutes -- you still need to know where to go. Somehow Stark didn't have to spend even a moment asking anyone for directions -- he just flew straight to the exact spot where the bad guys were hassling their prisoners. Also, the suit magically distinguishes enemies from civilians. In real life, you could send someone in wearing a supersuit and he'd end up killing at least a couple of friends and civilians for every 10 enemies, I expect.

The cybernetics were also a little too much. We already have voice recognition software, so I wasn't bothered by Stark's ability to talk to his computers, but where is the computer that understands everything you say and answers back in perfect natural English -- with delightfully wry sarcasm thrown in? Where is the program that provides perfect Pashto-English voice translation at the touch of a button? If he's really got these things, he could be making far more in civilian software than in weapons technology, I would expect.

And by the way, why does Stark almost keel over when his power source is turned off? As far as his personal body was concerned, all it was doing was powering the magnet that kept the shrapnel away from his organs. It's not like it was keeping his heart pumping. He should have just casually said, "Damn, I'd better replace that soon -- gotta keep that shrapnel away from my heart."

Still, I enjoyed the flick more than I thought I would and recommend it as an action film where they actually expended some effort on the story line. It's not just a bunch of meaningless explosions.

And for a great site on movie physics, go here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Back to Law

I've had a lot of non-legal posts lately (I was distracted with grading), so back to a good old law topic for today.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court came down with an interesting Commerce Clause case, Department of Revenue of Kentucky v. Davis. Kentucky, like many states, exempts income derived from its own bonds from state income tax, but requires its residents to pay state income tax on income derived from bonds of other states. The question was whether this practice violates the "dormant" Commerce Clause.

The Commerce Clause of the Constitution says that "The Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce . . . among the several States." It does not expressly forbid the states from doing anything, but for nearly 200 years it has been understood to have the negative (or "dormant") implication that it generally prohibits state discrimination against interstate commerce. A state could not, for example, impose a 3% sales tax on goods produced within the state but a 6% sales tax on goods imported from other states. The result of this important prohibition is that the United States is a "free trade zone." It's not a point one thinks about much, but as other nations form free trade zones of their own, we appreciate more how important the dormant Commerce Clause is.

Does Kentucky's tax scheme violate the dormant Commerce Clause? Not too surprisingly, the Supreme Court said no. As the Court observed, 41 states treat give special tax treatment to income from their own bonds, and the practice has been around for nearly a century, so it would have been a bit of a surprise to find out that it's been unconstitutional this whole time.

The interesting part of the case is Justice Thomas's concurrence. Thomas agreed with the Court's result, but not its Commerce Clause analysis. Rather, Thomas said that he agreed with the Court's rejection of the plaintiff's dormant Commerce Clause argument on the ground that there is no such thing as the dormant Commerce Clause. Thomas said that he would entirely discard the Court's dormant Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

Wow. I often wonder about whether Justice Thomas is serious when he says stuff like this. He's proved time and again that he's the most radical Justice, a Beamon jump beyond the others. In addition to saying that he would give up on the dormant Commerce Clause, he has said that he would really enforce the nondelegation doctrine (which could prohibit Congress from delegating power to administrative agencies) and what he perceives as the originally intended limits on Congress's Comerce Clause power. If all of these views were enforced, a pretty huge chunk of the federal government would be unconstitutional.

It's one thing to say stuff like this when there's only one of you. But what if there were four others on the Court? Would Thomas really vote to eliminate half or more of the federal government? I wonder if he's really serious about this stuff or if he's just indulging himself while he can.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Latest Sign of the Apocalypse

American Airlines will start charging $15 to check your first bag.

The only possible conclusion is that the airlines have determined that our hatred for them has reached some kind of maximum hatred ceiling, so it doesn't matter what they do anymore. There's only so much hatred a person can have for a business. The airlines long ago replaced the phone company as the businesses everyone loves to hate, and what with the delays, the lying about the delays, the lost luggage, the treating us like cattle (actually I expect cattle get treated better), the humiliating boarding experience, the fuel surcharges, and everything else they've done to us, they figure they can do anything now, and it won't make a difference to how we feel.

What's next? Soon the basic fare won't include a seat. It's already true that JetBlue told a passenger he had to sit in the toilet for three hours on a transcontinental flight. Obviously he didn't pay the seat surcharge. Soon the basic fare will entitle you to fly in the cargo hold -- a seat will be $17 extra. (And if you want a cushion on that seat instead of bare metal, it's another $6.)

And speaking of toilets, do you really expect toilets on airplanes to be free forever? There are such things as pay toilets, you know. Are you saying that you're too cheap to pay $1 to use the toilet? Obviously you have a spoiled entitlement mentality.

I think everyone knows that airfares have to go up with oil hitting a record high every day (remember when we used to fear that $70 a barrel oil would hurt the economy?). But everyone also sees that the airlines are raising fares in the slimiest, weaseliest, most deceptive possible ways. People want to comparison shop, and you can't do it if you can't find honest fares. If the airline ad says that the fare is $200, you want to pay $200, not $200 plus a $20 fuel surchage plus $30 to check your bag (I presume it's $15 each way on a round trip ticket) and a $10 security fee. That's an extra 30% of the ticket price. You can't comparison shop if 30% of the is hidden.

Airlines, we're not fooled. And we're keeping a special hatred reserve for whatever you haul out next.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sex Transcends Party

The political parties like to focus on their differences, but we voters can see the things that unite them. Like spending. Republicans decried excessive government spending for decades and promised to rein it in, but once they got control of the White House and both Houses of Congress it became clear that they were even bigger spenders than the Democrats. The Democrats prefer to tax and spend, and the Republicans prefer to borrow and spend, but what they both like to do is spend, spend, spend, spend.

The other uniter is sex. Just when you might have been worried that Eliot Spitzer's sex-tainted resignation was tarring the Democrats, along comes a Republican to remind us that sex transcends party. Vito Fossella, Republican Congressman representing Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, has announced he won't seek re-election. Fossella, 43 years old, married, and with three kids -- three kids by his wife, that is -- turns out to have called on his mistress and mother of his other child for help when (oh, this is the best part) he was arrested for drunk driving.

It's almost too easy for snarky bloggers to make fun of these politicians. We can debate which is worse -- soliciting sex in bathrooms, patronizing prostitutes, or having an affair. But really, don't these people know that they live under a microscope? You might think their desire for re-election could tame their libidos at least a little.

Well, at least the ball is back in the Republican court. And really, what could promote family values more than having two families?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Commencement Day

It's time for our annual spring ritual -- sending our students out into the great big world. It's Commencement Day.

I'm prepared with my regalia as usual, although as usual slightly disappointed that Yale's regalia regulations require its graduates to wear a mortarboard. I always wanted one of those cool tams.

When I got my regalia, I thought about cutting loose and getting a tam anyway, cheeky rebel that I am. But just about that time, the head of the Navy, Admiral Michael Boorda, committed suicide after a reporter questioned whether he had worn a medal to which he was not entitled. I decided to stick with the mortarboard.

Also (to the considerable mirth of my Ph.D.'d girlfriend), we lowly J.D.s wear a master's hood (only 3.5 feet long) instead of a doctoral hood (4 feet long with side panels). And we don't get to wear a gold tassel. But that's OK -- I like my purple tassel.

Of course the other burning question is whether it is permissible to bring a book or other reading material on stage and read it surreptitiously while 500 students are getting their diplomas one by one. I'm in the "no" camp, but I can't deny that my mind wanders by the time the Gs and Hs are crossing the stage.

Congratulations to graduates and best wishes for the future.

Friday, May 16, 2008

No Appeasement

I got into a furious debate last night with someone who couldn't stop talking about how Barack Obama will destroy America. I was bearing his tirade patiently until he got to talking about how wrong the left-wing media was to jump on President Bush's righteous suggestion that those who advocate holding diplomatic talks with heads of nations we won't currently talk to, such as Iran and North Korea, are promoting appeasement.

Bush's comparison is inapt. The appeasement of Hitler by western powers -- to which Bush specifically compared suggestions that we talk to Iran or North Korea -- didn't consist of talking to Hitler; it consisted of giving him the Sudetenland and acquiescing in his other conquests. There's a big difference between holding diplomatic talks and giving in to territorial demands.

Diplomatic talks don't have to be weak. They can be tough too. We talked to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. That didn't mean we appeased it.

I'm not expert enough to say whether holding talks with Iran or North Korea would work better than the current strategy -- although the current strategy does seem like a disaster. But I do know that calling anyone who disagrees with you an appeaser is cheap claptrap.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Big Surprise

The Washington Post is running a series on medical care in immigrant prisons: detention centers where the federal government is holding foreigners suspected of immigration violations. Guess what? The care is scandalously bad. People die in custody from health problems (83 in the last five years) or just get appalling care -- worse than dogs get at a dog pound, one nurse says.

I don't mean to make light of the Post's investigation -- the problem is scandalous, and the Post is doing a public service to report it. But what would anybody expect? Of course the health care in immigrant prisons is going to be the worst care in the country. The reason lies in simple political analysis.

There's a reason why the INS (before it became the ICE) was the most incompetent agency in the government. There's a reason why, as the Post reported way back in 1991, the line to get service at the INS office in Florida's Dade County was "the most infamous line in Florida," often requiring a wait of 12 hours just to get in the door, and sometimes stretching as much as 2 days.

The reason is: noncitizens can't vote. In a system run by elected politicians, the bloc of nonvoters is going to get the lowest priority. So of course the government agency tasked with providing services to noncitizens is going to be the worst agency there is. It's that simple.

And among citizens, which group has the least political clout? Prisoners.

So now imagine what kind of priority politicians are going to give to providing services to noncitizen prisoners.

The Post can run all the articles it wants. And it should. This is important journalism. But the situation is not going to improve.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ah, Those Sex Scandals

Even in the final throes of grading, I can't resist taking a moment to call your attention to this.

OK, here's the question: which would be funnier (1) an admiral having illicit sex in the White House in 1990, or (2) his denying it with the words "I did not have sex with this woman"?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Almost There

Reached an important milestone -- made it through the last pile of exams. I'll still be crunching numbers and doing other grading stuff all weekend (and I still have four term papers to read), but it's a big moment. I was singing "Zip-a-dee-do-dah" as I started preparing the spreadsheet.

As bad as grading is -- and it's really bad -- it does have the redeeming aspect that the task is relatively clear. Most of a professor's life is a plunge into the unknown. In the most important part, scholarship, there is no clear goal, no easy way to tell what topic to take up next, no obvious set of tasks to do each day. Of course that's what makes the job so great, but it can also be daunting. So although grading is painful, particularly when you have 144 exams and have to grade 10 to 14 hours a day, day after day, it's refreshing to have such a clearly defined task to do for a change. I'm definitely not volunteering for more, but, with the exams safely shelved for another year, I can see some slight pleasure in knowing what I'm supposed to do.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Still Grading

Just in case you were wondering. There's nothing like a pile of 104 exams (I finished the 40 in my other class) to keep you in a grading daze. And then I also have four term papers. I should be done May 12. Blogging to resume thereafter.