Clapham Omnibus

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal is the worst thing I've read in a while on health care.  Cataloging its sheer dumbness would be a labor of many days, so I'll just pick one representative argument (commenters are free to provide their own, or, as the case may be, defend the brilliance of the author's insight).  But first some context.  The point  is that there is no right to health care.  It supports these with a series of independent arguments.  Here is one of them:

When the supposed right to health care is widely recognized, as in the United Kingdom, it tends to reduce moral imagination. Whenever I deny the existence of a right to health care to a Briton who asserts it, he replies, “So you think it is all right for people to be left to die in the street?”

When I then ask my interlocutor whether he can think of any reason why people should not be left to die in the street, other than that they have a right to health care, he is generally reduced to silence. He cannot think of one.

I can think of a lot of things wrong with this argument.  In the first place, perhaps Dalrymple (that's the author's name) ought to ask different people from the men on the Clapham omnibus.  Secondly, it's weird that the people he asks always give the same answer and are stumped by the same objection.  Third, Dalrymple's question is adequately answered by the person, who takes it as self-evident that no one should be left to die in the street when someone can do something about it. 

Rights, for the average guy on the Clapham omnibus, are like that.  Ask the average American on the 151 Sheridan whether she has the right to private property, and she will say "yes."  Ask her why it shouldn't be the case that no one should take away her goods for no reason at all and she will stare at you and repeat that she has a right to private property.

The recognition of baseline inalienable rights (so we can say for the sake of argument) does not mean one lacks moral imagination.  If that were the case, the existence of moral imagination would nullify the existence of inalienable rights, since, after all, they lack imagination.

*Thanks to a long time reader and friend of for this tip.

Profits good

I'm sure Stephen L. Carter is a smart guy, but his opinion piece in the Washington Post today is unquestionably silly.  Here's how it begins:

A specter is haunting America: the specter of profit. We have become fearful that somewhere, somehow, an evil corporation has found a way to make lots of money.

Ok–who can see the problem?  Is it profits simpliciter (I used the Latin phrase since we're talking about a Yale law professor's thoughts here)?  High profits?  Or, perhaps, are we talking about disproportionately high profits earned when people don't make disproportionately large amounts of money?  I'm confused.  But let's continue.

Flash back three years. In 2006, Exxon Mobil announced the highest profit in the history of American corporate enterprise. Politicians and pundits stumbled over each other to call for an investigation and for some sort of confiscatory tax on the money the company earned. Profit, it seemed, was an evil, but large profit was even worse.

Again, I wonder, was it the simple fact of their making a profit, or was it there making a certain kind of profit.  Those, I think, are different propositions.  And indeed, when one considers the amount of public treasure (US military) spent on making Exxon's private wealth secure, one wonders whether it's fair for Exxon to reap rewards incommensurate with their contribution to the res publica, the public thing (Latin again).

Today, the debate on the overhaul of the health-care system sparks a shiver of deja vu. The leitmotif of the conversation about the coming shape of health insurance is that the villain is the system of private insurance. "For-profit" firms come under constant attack from activists and members of Congress.

Thus, a recent news release from the AFL-CIO began with this evidently alarming fact: "Profits at 10 of the country's largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007." Even had the figures been correct — they weren't — we are seeing the same circus. Profit is the enemy. America could be made pure, if only profit could be purged.

This attitude was wrong in 2006. It is wrong now. High profits are excellent news. When corporate earnings reach record levels, we should be celebrating. The only way a firm can make money is to sell people what they want at a price they are willing to pay. If a firm makes lots of money, lots of people are getting what they want.

Again–profits, high profits, disproportionate profits, and now profits illegitimately gained.  The problem with the high profits of the insurance companies is that they depend on their not paying claims–on their denying people the insurance that they have paid for (or charging a lot for very little).  Further, it's wrong to talk of "price their willing to pay" when it comes to insurance–one typically has little to no choice in the amount one has to pay or to whom one pays it.

This argument is already so bad that it's not worth continuing to criticize it–the rest goes on to argue that profit is good (including price gouging during natural disasters!).  But no one, save for a few college socialists (and really not even them) denies that profit simpliciter is a positive thing.  They just hold that profits of certain types and quantities are not necessarily a good thing–case in point, health insurance.  The confusion at the beginning makes this argument a case of equivocation, but the fact that the argument sets up a non-existent opponent makes it a very nice case of a hollow man (with a bit of weak man and classic straw man).  In other words, awesome take down, professor Carter, of an argument no one has seriously made.

Blame America first

In today's column, Michael Gerson argues that the Obama administration so stressed "engagement" in its foreign policy that it has revealed the genius of Bush-era saber rattling.  Well, that's not exactly how he puts it, but one loses the energy to be charitable to one who treats people with such appalling disrespect.  Luckily Gerson is so incompetent at straw-manning.

He writes: 

Six months on, how fares the Obama doctrine? Concerning North Korea and Iran, the doctrine is on its deathbed. 

Six months!  Seems a little early.  But anyway, later on:

The problem is not engagement itself — which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration. The difficulty is that the Obama foreign policy team has often argued that the reason for tension and conflict with nations such as North Korea and Iran is a lack of adequate American engagement — which is absurd, and which has raised absurdly high expectations.

During the 2008 campaign, for example, Obama adviser P.J. Crowley (now State Department spokesman) argued, "Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran — or with North Korea — now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves.

Gerson simply cannot read.  In the the first paragraph he sets up the straw man ("Obama argued it was all America's fault"), which the second paragraph means to knock down–quotation and everything.  It turns out, however, that the straw man is merely revealed for what it is by the quotation–notice that P.J. Crowley says "on both sides" which Gerson mysteriously interprets as "blame America first and only."  So nobody–especially the quotation–blamed the previous administration exclusively or entirely.  Sheesh.  Don't the editors at the Post read this stuff?

I'd like to quit there, but it gets more silly.  Gerson argues in conclusion that regimes such as North Korea and Iran depend for their legitimacy on anti-Americanism to such an extent that if they are stripped of that reason by our non-belligerence, they struggle to control their people.

Such regimes are often internally preoccupied. Precisely because they lack genuine legitimacy, they spend large amounts of time and effort maintaining their fragile authority, consolidating power and managing undemocratic transitions. North Korea confronts a succession crisis. Iran deals with growing dissent and clerical division. Both tend to make calculations based on internal power struggles, not some rational calculation of their external image and interests. They are so inwardly focused that they do not have, as Clinton said, "any capacity" to respond to engagement. It is questionable in these cases whether we currently have any serious negotiating partners at all.

And the inherent instability of oppressive regimes also leads them to tighten control by invoking threats from abroad — particularly from the United States. Because anti-Americanism is a central commitment of North Korean and Iranian ideologies, any softening of this resentment requires a kind of voluntary regime change. Pyongyang and Tehran would need to find a new source of legitimacy — a new prop for their power — other than hatred for America. Not easy or likely.

The Obama administration's public campaign of engaging enemies is headed toward an entirely unintended consequence. Eventually it will raise expectations for action. As the extended hand is slapped again and again, the goals of North Korea and Iran will be fully revealed and the cost to American credibility will rise. Already the administration has given Iran a September deadline to respond to the offer of talks and has threatened "crippling action" if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities. Congress is preparing sanctions on Iranian refined petroleum, which would escalate tensions significantly.

This is the paradox of the Obama doctrine. By attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is dramatically exposing the limits of engagement — and building the case for confrontation.

So in other words, Obama's foreign policy of engagement has stripped two oppressive regimes of a major internal reason for their legitimacy, a legitimacy they had previously based on ample evidence of American saber-rattling.  And this "builds the case for confrontation" on whose part?  Ours, no, we're "engaging."  On theirs?  Not likely.

Why don’t they live by it?

E.J. Dionne tries out an argument against concealed carry laws, with disastrous results.  He writes:

Isn't it time to dismantle the metal detectors, send the guards at the doors away and allow Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights by being free to carry their firearms into the nation's Capitol?

I've been studying the deep thoughts of senators who regularly express their undying loyalty to the National Rifle Association, and I have decided that they should practice what they preach. They tell us that the best defense against crime is an armed citizenry and that laws restricting guns do nothing to stop violence.

If they believe that, why don't they live by it?

. . . . 

Don't think this column is offered lightly. I want these guys to put up or shut up. If the NRA's servants in Congress don't take their arguments seriously enough to apply them to their own lives, maybe the rest of us should do more to stop them from imposing their nonsense on our country. 

This argument has the sour flavor of the ad hominem tu quoque: If Senators in favor of concealed carry laws were serious, they would not permit gun restrictions at their own place of work (they don't, so their argument is wrong).  That criticism is silly and misdirected.

I think these senators would consent to people carrying weapons around them at other places (say at their local Qwik E Mart in their home state)–at least that's what the laws they support allow.  The US Capitol is an exception to such laws (for reasons too plain to mention).  So the other part of this argument is a nearly textbook fallacy of accident: applying a general rule to an obvious exception.

As one who opposes relaxing gun laws (most of the time), I find this argument (and this endorsement of it) embarrassing.


**7/28/09 edits for elegance–

Dubious is as dubious does

Apparently, John's latest foray into the entangling brambles of Will's global warming denial struck a chord.  In particular, his questioning the expertise of Will and Mark Steyn to one, deny global warming, and two, to properly adjudicate what qualifies as adequate evidence for their denials seemed to have aroused the ire of none less than Steyn himself. To wit:

In a column about "the environment" the other day, George Will quoted yours truly, and has received a lot of grief ever since for relying on a notorious know-nothing.

As he should.  Part of constructing a refutation of a given position is making sure the expertise of the sources one cites in said refutation is commensurate to level of expertise one is seeking to refute.  In short, you don't go ask a carpenter to cut you a porterhouse.  But rather than acknowledge the dubious nature of his source, Steyn lapses into some dubious rhetorical trickery of his own, quoting Thomas Friedman's (neatly deprived of context) admonition to further reduce carbon footprints, then providing a picture of Friedman's ample estate. The conclusion we're meant to draw?

Well, obviously, being a renowned expert, Thomas Friedman, like Al Gore and the Prince of Wales, needs a supersized carbon footprint.

Ah, yes.  They're all hypocrites.  We've touched on this favorite hobby horse of the global warming deniers before (here and here).  What we said then bears repeating now.  Al Gore, Thomas Friedman and a whole host of pocket-mulching hippies could be the biggest hypocrites that ever walked the face of the earth: they drive the biggest trucks, own the biggest houses, fly to conferences in jets fueled with Ozone Penentrator 2.0 while tossing styrofoam plates out of the plane and it would not matter one whit, in so far as the facts of global warming are concerned.  But you see, it's always easier to attack the arguer than the argument. Moreover, Steyn's not done reasoning like a lazy freshman:

But you don't [need a huge carbon footprint]- you can get by beating your laundry on the rocks down by the river with the native women all day long.

"Environmentalism" is a government restraint on economic advance and, therefore, social mobility. In other words, it's a way to ensure you'll never live like Tom Friedman.

Maybe it's just the fact that I've misplaced my tinfoil hat, but a more bizarre and unwarranted conclusion, I cannot imagine.  Especially in light of the fact that governments the world over have long been among the most vehement opponents of environmental movement.  Of particular note, our own.

The stain of ignorance

In order further to induce skepticism about global warming, George Will now invokes the words of Mark Steyn, a man with no apparent education or expertise on climate science, who in turn rests his global warming denialism on someone who who has no education or expertise on climate science.  Will writes:

The costs of weaning the U.S. economy off much of its reliance on carbon are uncertain, but certainly large. The climatic benefits of doing so are uncertain but, given the behavior of those pesky 5 billion, almost certainly small, perhaps minuscule, even immeasurable. Fortunately, skepticism about the evidence that supposedly supports current alarmism about climate change is growing, as is evidence that, whatever the truth about the problem turns out to be, U.S. actions cannot be significantly ameliorative.

When New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called upon "young Americans" to "get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon," another columnist, Mark Steyn, responded: "If you're 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life. If you're graduating high school, there has been no global warming since you entered first grade."

Which could explain why the Mall does not reverberate with youthful clamors about carbon. And why, regarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying.

For the Steyn reference, see here (for the lazy, Steyn's argument rests on the discredited paper of a non-scientist).  As a matter of logic, however, relying on the authority of someone else is a slightly more sound strategy than making stuff up–which is what Will did last time he talked about global warming.


This point from Harold Meyerson is where the health care debate ought to start:

Every other nation with an advanced economy long ago secured universal health care for its citizens — an achievement that the United States alone finds beyond the capacities of mortal man.

One might also add that health outcomes in those countries are generally superior to ours for sometimes half the money.  Notice also that the plans that these other countries have implemented are far to the "left," as it were, of anything being considered today.  In light of that, Michael Gerson's endorsement of centrism merely because it is centrism is baffling:  

Some may accuse such moderates of lacking in boldness or ambition. It is better than lacking in responsibility and good judgment.

I suppose I should mention that Gerson hasn't done anything (in the rest of the piece) to establish that moderates have exhibited anything like good judgment.  He has simply assumed that the moderate position is superior to the one advocated by "liberal interest groups."  Yet, as Meyerson points out, the fiscally responsible good judgment seems to be far to the left of anything being proposed.  Few also could deny that the current system has been a striking success for anyone not in the insurance business.  In light of the reality we face, and the possibilities actually realized in every other nation with an advanced economy, one wonders what the virtues of the moderate position, because it is the moderate position, must be.   

Iron Justice

Today the Washington Post features a column by the "liberal" Richard Cohen.  He writes:

In the meantime, Sotomayor will do, and will do very nicely, as a personification of what ails the American left. She is, as everyone has pointed out, in the mainstream of American liberalism, a stream both intellectually shallow and preoccupied with the past. We have a neat summary of it in the recent remarks of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who said he wanted a Supreme Court justice "who will continue to move the court forward in protecting . . . important civil rights." He cited the shooting of a gay youth, the gang rape of a lesbian and the murder of a black man — in other words, violence based on homophobia and racism. Yes. But who nowadays disagrees? 

No really.  His problem, so it seems, is that Sotomayor may be boring (unlike Scalia):

From Sotomayor, though, came not one whimper of regret about the current legality of capital punishment. Innocent men may die, the cause of humanism may stall, but she will follow the jot and tittle of the law, with which she has no quarrel anyway. Little wonder moderate conservative senators are enamored.

Contrast her approach to this and other problems with what Antonin Scalia has done with issues close to his own heart. Where in all of Sotomayor's opinions, speeches and now testimony is there anything approaching Scalia's dissent in Morrison v. Olson, in which, alone, he not only found fault with the law creating special prosecutors but warned about how it would someday be abused? "Frequently an issue of this sort will come before the court clad, so to speak, in sheep's clothing," he wrote. "But this wolf comes as a wolf."

My admiration for Scalia is constrained by the fact that I frequently believe him to be wrong. But his thinking is often fresh, his writing is often bracing; and, more to my point, he has no counterpart on the left. His liberal and moderate brethren wallow in bromides; they can sometimes outvote him, but they cannot outthink him.

It's not Iron Chef, it's the Supreme Court of the United States: boring yet principled predictability and meticulous correctness matter.

A statement like this should not be taken out of context

Michael Gerson worries about taking Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg out of context, merely in order to take her out of context.  Here's what he says:

There was a scandal this week concerning the Supreme Court, though it didn't concern the nomination of its newest member.

The New York Times Magazine printed a candid interview with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, including this portion:

Q: "Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid abortions for poor women?"

Clearly that question refers to some amount of previous discussion, so Gerson writes:

Justice Ginsburg: "Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion."

A statement like this should not be taken out of context. The context surrounding this passage is a simplistic, pro-choice rant. Abortion, in Ginsburg's view, is an essential part of sexual equality, thus ending all ethical debate. "There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to be so obvious," she explains. "So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don't know why this hasn't been said more often." Of pro-lifers, she declares, "They're fighting a losing battle" — which must come as discouraging news to litigants in future abortion cases that come before the high court.

Given this context, can it be argued that Ginsburg — referring to "populations that we don't want to have too many of" — was merely summarizing the views of others and describing the attitudes of the country when Roe v. Wade was decided? It can be argued — but it is not bloody likely. Who, in Ginsburg's statement, is the "we"? And who, in 1973, was arguing for the eugenic purposes of abortion?

No, it's obvious from the actual context (which is actually linked in the online version of this article) that this is what Ginsburg is talking about.  Here is what she says.  

Q: Let me ask you about the fight you waged for the courts to understand that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: I wrote about it a number of times. I litigated Captain Struck’s case about reproductive choice. [In 1972, Ginsburg represented Capt. Susan Struck, who became pregnant during her service in the Air Force. At the time, the Air Force automatically discharged any woman who became pregnant and told Captain Struck that she should have an abortion if she wanted to keep her job. The government changed the regulation before the Supreme Court could decide the case.] If the court could have seen Susan Struck’s case — this was the U.S. government, a U.S. Air Force post, offering abortions, in 1971, two years before Roe.

Q: And suggesting an abortion as the solution to Struck’s problem.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. Not only that, but it was available to her on the base.

Q: The case ties together themes of women’s equality and reproductive freedom. The court split those themes apart in Roe v. Wade. Do you see, as part of a future feminist legal wish list, repositioning Roe so that the right to abortion is rooted in the constitutional promise of sex equality?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Oh, yes. I think it will be.

Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.

It's clear that Ginsburg is not talking about her own personal position, as Gerson suggests, but rather the position of public opinion and the court at that time.  She even admits that her perception of that was wrong, not her personal view. 

Her argument, as is obvious, is that abortion law (as it stands) discriminates against women who cannot afford it.  And she makes the observation, not the assertion of an ethical absolute as Gerson dishonestly suggests, that rich women will always have the choice, since they have the means to travel or to afford that choice.  

Gerson's dishonest version of Ginsburg's interview isn't even close–perhaps the sign of that is the odd formulation: a statement like this should not be taken out of context.  I wonder, which statements should be taken out of context?