Tag Archives: George Will

Stop contradicting yourself

In the never begun quest to figure out why our children isn't learning, George Will hits upon the answer:

Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism — teachers should be mere "enablers" of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof. Other opponents are the teachers unions and their handmaiden, the Democratic Party. Today's liberals favor paternalism — you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance — for everyone except children. Odd.  

His argument would be better if he could find some representative liberal making that argument.  But alas.  Perhaps honesty is just too much to ask.

UPDATE: here's a more enlightening discussion of the same piece.  

Unilateral multilateralism

George Will has lately been a little more restrained, holding back his usual parade of straw men in favor of directionless overly written meditations on baseball or the lack of human progress.  Today he throws himself back into the thick of things with an analysis of what the very complicated situation in the Caucusus means for the US election.  What does it mean?  Well, it means that Obama is a sissy, and McCain is Mr.Tough guy. To be fair it doesn't seem that Will endorses McCain's attitude (it's unclear what Will's view is), but it is obvious that he ridicules Obama's.  He can, of course, ridicule Obama's position all he wants, but he should try to be more effective.  He writes:

On ABC's "This Week," Richardson, auditioning to be Barack Obama's running mate, disqualified himself. Clinging to the Obama campaign's talking points like a drunk to a lamppost, Richardson said that this crisis proves the wisdom of Obama's zest for diplomacy and that America should get the U.N. Security Council "to pass a strong resolution getting the Russians to show some restraint." Apparently Richardson was ambassador to the United Nations for 19 months without noticing that Russia has a Security Council veto.

This crisis illustrates, redundantly, the paralysis of the United Nations regarding major powers, hence regarding major events, and the fictitiousness of the European Union regarding foreign policy. Does this disturb Obama's serenity about the efficacy of diplomacy? Obama's second statement about the crisis, in which he tardily acknowledged Russia's invasion, underscored the folly of his first, which echoed the Bush administration's initial evenhandedness. "Now," said Obama, "is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint."

I think anyone can tell that Richardon's initial point (whatever may be its merits) is primarily a historical one (one about how things should have gone before this point).  Now that the US has exhausted itself on belligerent unilateralism, Russia is free to act as it wants–belligerently, as it turns out, and unilaterally.  What can the US do about it?  Not a lot (at least, not belligerently or unilaterally).  Now contrast this with McCain's rather different answer to a different question:    

John McCain, the "life is real, life is earnest" candidate, says he has looked into Putin's eyes and seen "a K, a G and a B." But McCain owes the thug thanks, as does America's electorate. Putin has abruptly pulled the presidential campaign up from preoccupation with plumbing the shallows of John Edwards and wondering what "catharsis" is "owed" to disappointed Clintonites.

McCain, who has called upon Russia "to immediately and unconditionally . . . withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory," favors expelling Russia from the Group of Eight, and organizing a league of democracies to act where the United Nations is impotent, which is whenever the subject is important. But Georgia, whose desire for NATO membership had U.S. support, is not in NATO because some prospective members of McCain's league of democracies, e.g., Germany, thought that starting membership talks with Georgia would complicate the project of propitiating Russia. NATO is scheduled to review the question of Georgia's membership in December. Where now do Obama and McCain stand?

If Georgia were in NATO, would NATO now be at war with Russia? More likely, Russia would not be in Georgia. Only once in NATO's 59 years has the territory of a member been invaded — the British Falklands, by Argentina, in 1982.

Will is oblivious the obvious contradiction: what means will McCain use to achieve these ends?  What will convince NATO and the other members of the G-8 (as well as the non-yet-existent "league of democracies") to embrace his objectives?  Will it be diplomacy? 

It turns out, or so it seems to me, that for all the tough talk, McCain and Obama really agree on the fundamental importance of negotiation and diplomacy, they just may disagree on the means.


I can think of two primary beer objectors–the late Dr.Atkins (and his crazy low-carb diet) and Christian (therefore European) religious Teetotalers. So why this then?

The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors — by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. "Most of the world's population today," Johnson writes, "is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol."

Johnson suggests, not unreasonably, that this explains why certain of the world's population groups, such as Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, have had disproportionately high levels of alcoholism: These groups never endured the cruel culling of the genetically unfortunate that town dwellers endured. If so, the high alcoholism rates among Native Americans are not, or at least not entirely, ascribable to the humiliations and deprivations of the reservation system. Rather, the explanation is that not enough of their ancestors lived in towns.

But that is a potential stew of racial or ethnic sensitivities that we need not stir in this correction of Investor's Business Daily. Suffice it to say that the good news is really good: Beer is a health food. And you do not need to buy it from those wan, unhealthy-looking people who, peering disapprovingly at you through rimless Trotsky-style spectacles, seem to run all the health food stores.

Doesn't Whole Foods, a kind of health food store, sell beer?  Nice bit of paralipsis also about racial "sensitivities."

Evidence of absence

The other week George Will repeated his frequent claim that the simple correlation of crime rates and jail rates tells you something–that harsh jail sentences reduces crime.  One would have to be a fool, he alleges, to wonder whether that were the case.  With that in mind, it's interesting to read Cass Sunstein and Justin Wolfers (actual law professors) on the deterrent effect of the death penalty.  Their conclusion (after what appears to be actual research): dunno.  Here's a selection:

One might like to conclude that these latter studies demonstrate that the death penalty does not deter. But this is asking too much of the data. The number of homicides is so large, and varies so much year to year, that it is impossible to disentangle the effects of execution policy from other changes affecting murder rates. Moreover, execution policy doesn't change often or much. Just as a laboratory scientist with too few experimental subjects cannot draw strong conclusions, the best we can say is that homicide rates are not closely associated with capital punishment. On the basis of existing evidence, it is especially hard to justify claims about causality.

Justice Stevens argues, "In the absence of such evidence, deterrence cannot serve as a sufficient penological justification for this uniquely severe and irrevocable punishment." Perhaps. But the absence of evidence of deterrence should not be confused with evidence of absence.

Justice Scalia relies on the suggestion by Sunstein and Vermeule that some evidence suggests a possible deterrent effect. But that suggestion actually catalyzed Donohue and Wolfers's study of available empirical evidence. Existing studies contain significant statistical errors, and slightly different approaches yield widely varying findings, a problem exacerbated by researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions. This led Sunstein and Vermeule to acknowledge: "We do not know whether deterrence has been shown. . . . Nor do we conclude that the evidence of deterrence has reached some threshold of reliability that permits or requires government action."

In short, the best reading of the accumulated data is that they do not establish a deterrent effect of the death penalty.

It seems to be obvious that Stevens believes the burden of proof lies with those who assert the causal connection.  In the absence of such evidence for their claim, they can't make the assertion.  Showing that it's not the case might be akin to making the accused prove that he's innocent.  For, after all, there's always the possibility that there is a correlation we haven't discovered yet (and the claims of astrology might also turn ought to be true).  Disproving such a connection would be very difficult and it's silly that Sunstein and Wolfers would suggest this a reasonable request–especially in an op-ed about causal connections for which they claim no positive evidence exists.

The absence of such a correlation, of course, might be seen as a separate question from whether the death penalty is justified (but they don't argue this).  If one's justification for capital punishment relies on deterrence, then the answer is obviously no.  They write:

Why is the Supreme Court debating deterrence? A prominent line of reasoning, endorsed by several justices, holds that if capital punishment fails to deter crime, it serves no useful purpose and hence is cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment. This reasoning tracks public debate as well. While some favor the death penalty on retributive grounds, many others (including President Bush) argue that the only sound reason for capital punishment is to deter murder.

We concur with Scalia that if a strong deterrent effect could be demonstrated, a plausible argument could be made on behalf of executions. But what if the evidence is inconclusive?

We are not sure how to answer that question. But as executions resume, the debates over the death penalty should not be distorted by a misunderstanding of what the evidence actually shows.

This is baffling.  While the authors deny positive evidence for deterrence, they fail to make the point that there might be some independent justification for capital punishment, like punishment.  Instead they retreat into an absurd hypothetical–if it does deter crime, then yes.  But there's no evidence that it does, so the reasonable conclusion would be that it's not justified on that basis, would it not?

Argumentum ad titulum

Here's a new fallacy.  It's a specific variation of the straw man.  It involves attacking the titles of someone's work in place of the work itself.  George Will–what would we do without him–has been working on this one for several years now.  Several years ago, before the NonSequitur, I saw him on ABC's This Week critique a series of New York Times' articles by reading their titles.  From what I could gather, he didn't bother to read the actual article.  The very same subject came up again this past Sunday.

Here is what he writes:

Listening to political talk requires a third ear that hears what is not said. Today's near silence about crime probably is evidence of social improvement. For many reasons, including better policing and more incarceration, Americans feel, and are, safer. The New York Times has not recently repeated such amusing headlines as "Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling" (1997), "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops" (1998), "Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction" (2000) and "More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime" (2003).

Headlines!  Without reading those articles, one can tell that the titles suggest a counter-intuitive irony.  Will challenges this by not reading it and accusing the author (and the newspaper) of denying an obvious causal connection.

We're Humean about such things, so we don't think causal connections can be divined a priori. 

Not alone

Sometimes I wonder if I labor in solitude.  Then I read this review of George Will's most recent book–which is really just a collection of columns with an introduction:

Has Will lurched leftward? Not at all. As his 1983 book “Statecraft as Soulcraft” indicates, he has long regretted that we have “become a nation wedded to the liberal assumption that the way to deal with passions is to ‘express’ them, to maximize ‘self-expression.’” These sentiments have now led to a sentimentalization of America. By contrast, Will mocks what he sees as a saccharine therapeutic culture in which bus drivers in Scottsdale, Ariz., are referred to as “tranporters of learners” and school receptionists as “directors of first impressions.” What’s more, Will ridicules Thomas Frank’s fatuous “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” which maintained that Americans vote conservative only because hot-button social issues like abortion and gun-control blind them to their true economic interests. As Will puts it, “It has come to this: The crux of the political left’s complaint about Americans is that they are insufficiently materialistic.”

But these are easy targets, sometimes too easy. When Will issues blanket and tedious denunciations of American universities, he has a penchant for stacking the deck: “Professors, lusting after tenure and prestige, teach that the great works of the Western canon, properly deconstructed, are not explorations of the human spirit but mere reflections of power relations and social pathologies.” But is there anything wrong with a professor aspiring to make a mark in his or her field? Was Will “lusting” for “prestige” when he embarked upon his career as a journalist or was he simply trying to make a success of himself? And to denounce professors as a class is a form of reverse Marxism, no less absurd than depicting all businessmen as intrinsically greedy and corrupt.

Elsewhere, Will, like not a few conservatives, drifts into intellectual quicksand in trying to reconcile his worship of the past with his admiration for the free market. What Daniel Bell called the cultural contradictions of capitalism poses something of a problem for him since, you might say, he admires libertarian economics but not the libertinism that accompanies it. And for all his denunciations of hedonism, Will’s contempt for environmentalists and admiration of capitalism prompts him to pour scorn on measures to protect the planet. Suddenly, the swollen appetites of Americans are O.K. According to Will, in a column from 2002, “Beware the wrath of Americans who like to drive, and autoworkers who like to make, cars that are large, heavy and safer than the gasoline sippers that environmentalists prefer.”

I guess I wasn't the only one to notice.  But at a certain point, does one wonder whether such lazy and deceptive thinking deserves to be bound in a volume and reprinted?

Clever ignoramus

It's hard to believe George Will wrote these words:

The day after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo are entitled to seek habeas corpus hearings, John McCain called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Well.

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

Did McCain's extravagant condemnation of the court's habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents? More likely, some clever ignoramus convinced him that this decision could make the Supreme Court — meaning, which candidate would select the best judicial nominees — a campaign issue.

The decision, however, was 5 to 4. The nine justices are of varying quality, but there are not five fools or knaves. The question of the detainees' — and the government's — rights is a matter about which intelligent people of good will can differ.

Hard to believe because he normally treats people who disagree with his faux constitutional originalism as clueless college socialists bent on remaking American society through the courts.  

Here at least the ignoramus is "clever."  But besides, even though he falls on (what I would consider) the right side of the issue of habeas corpus (i.e., habeas corpus good! not habeas corpus bad!), his technique for making his point, save a few conciliatory words, remains essentially the same: opponent is fool with no knowledge or good sense.  Since the arguments against the High Court's ruling have little to do, obviously, with any legal knowledge about the court, the notion of habeas corpus, or the Constitution, this time Will is right.   

We will be interested to see if in the future "intelligent people of good will can differ." 

I’ve got a fever

Speaking of facts–I mean whether they matter on the op-ed page–pointing out that someone else has distorted or minimized or ignored inconvenient facts seems to me to be one of the hallmarks of an op-ed since it's one of the key moves in any critical argument.  Perhaps for that reason alone op-ed editors ought to be ever more vigilant for claims such as the following from George Will:

Regarding McCain's "central facts," the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization, which helped establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — co-winner, with Al Gore, of the Nobel Peace Prize — says global temperatures have not risen in a decade. So Congress might be arriving late at the save-the-planet party. Better late than never? No. When government, ever eager to expand its grip on the governed and their wealth, manufactures hysteria as an excuse for doing so, then: better never.  

Sounds like the IPCC says the globe isn't warming.  But:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.

That's the IPCC report of 2007.  Will seems to think temperature and climate are the same thing.  They're obviously not.  Can't someone at the Post tell him? 

The rest of his piece seemed a perfectly fine excursus on why some proposed measure to address global warming (cap and trade of carbon emissions) is a bad idea.  It might be.  But not because global warming is a communist hoax.  What communist hoax would use a capitalist system–trading and markets–to undermine capitalism?  But maybe that's just what the communists want us to think.

The Green Hornet

The only thing that makes George Will madder (and more incoherent) than "global warming" are teachers' unions.  Just as teachers' unions have singularly (without any interference from any other causal factor) been able to destroy public education and all that's good in America, environmentalists aim to destroy the economy for their Marxist political agenda.  I wish I were kidding:

What Friedrich Hayek called the "fatal conceit" — the idea that government can know the future's possibilities and can and should control the future's unfolding — is the left's agenda. The left exists to enlarge the state's supervision of life, narrowing individual choices in the name of collective goods. Hence the left's hostility to markets. And to automobiles — people going wherever they want whenever they want.

Today's "green left" is the old "red left" revised. Marx, a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist, prophesied deepening class conflict but thought that history's violent dialectic would culminate in a revolution that would usher in material abundance and such spontaneous cooperation that the state would wither away.

The green left preaches pessimism: Ineluctable scarcities (of energy, food, animal habitat, humans' living space) will require a perpetual regime of comprehensive rationing. The green left understands that the direct route to government control of almost everything is to stigmatize, as a planetary menace, something involved in almost everything — carbon.

He gets to this astoundingly moronic conclusion (that global warming is a myth perpetrated by "the left") by two main arguments.  First, he uncritically accepts of the word of a poorly qualified climate change deniers and climate change danger skeptics.  This time it's not Michael Crichton, science fiction author, but Nigel Lawson (that's Nigella's father), former British Cabinet member.  I can't determine what his specific expertise is here.  But it's obvious that he doesn't deny the fact of global warming–something which Will seems to do here.  He merely denies that it's a bad thing.  He writes (Will's quote):

"Over the past two-and-a-half-million years, a period during which the planet's climate fluctuated substantially, remarkably few of the earth's millions of plant and animal species became extinct. This applies not least, incidentally, to polar bears, which have been around for millennia, during which there is ample evidence that polar temperatures have varied considerably."

According to him at least, the climate is changing.  To be fair, of course, he'll probably deny that the cause is the presence of unabsorbed carbon in the atmosphere.  But that's a different claim from the one he's making above.  Scientists would agree of course that the earth's temperature has changed considerably over the years.  But not so drastically.  And not, at least not recently, because of carbon in the atmosphere. 

Will's second argument is inconsistent with this first one.  He writes

Want to build a power plant in Arizona? A building in Florida? Do you want to drive an SUV? Or leave your cellphone charger plugged in overnight? Some judge might construe federal policy as proscribing these activities. Kempthorne says such uses of the act, unintended by those who wrote it in 1973, would be "wholly inappropriate." But in 1973, climate Cassandras were saying that "the world's climatologists are agreed" that we must "prepare for the next ice age" (Science Digest, February 1973).

This one holds that the climate is probably not changing, or that climatologists should not be believed, because in the 70s there was concern (in the popular media) about "a new ice age."  In other words, Will suggests there is some kind of inconsistency in the arguments of current climatologists because an article or two (and he always cites specific articles on this point–good for him!) claimed the opposite of what they now claim.  This, of course, hardly makes them inconsistent.  Besides, reports from the 70s popular media ought not be held up against the work of actual scientists.  You might hold it up against the current disaster-media complex, but that would be something else entirely.

In one final bit of craziness, he concludes the above paragraph with the following warning:

And no authors of the Constitution or the 14th Amendment intended to create a "fundamental" right to abortion, but there it is.

Lest you think we won't slide down the slippery slope to less autonomy of personal choices, just look at what happened with Roe v. Wade.   

Built on sand

George Will compares the housing "crisis" (his scare quotes) to another one of his famous pseudo crises:

The housing perhaps-not-entirely-a-crisis resembles, in one particular, the curious consensus about the global warming "crisis," concerning which, the assumption is: Although Earth's temperature has risen and fallen through many millennia, the temperature was exactly right when, in the 1960s, Al Gore became interested in the subject.

There is a big difference, someone ought to point out, between the "climate" and the "weather" or the "temperature" at any given year.  Suggesting that these are the same–and then pointing out how silly global warming is–is just dumb.  I'm not even sure if this would rise to the standard of the straw man.  At least with the straw man you have to approximate someone's real argument in order to make the deception work.    

Anyway, on the strength of this astounding misunderstanding, Will launches into an a priori, and rhetorical-question-driven, assault on the housing crisis.  He writes: 

Are we to assume that last year, when housing prices were, say, 10 percent higher than they are now, they were exactly right? If so, why is that so? Because the market had set those prices, therefore they were where they belonged? But if the market was the proper arbiter of value then, why is it not the proper arbiter now? Whatever happened to the belief, way back in 2007, that there was a housing "bubble"? Or to the more ancient consensus that, because of, among other things, the deductibility of mortgage interest payments from taxable income, too much American capital flows into the housing stock?

Where's the drooling dunce who holds the position Will ever so skillfully skewers (that's two alliterations) here?  Nowhere I bet.  People may be wrong about the nature of the housing issue–they may even exaggerate it in a bit of political hyperbole–but Will should do us a favor of describing someone's actual position rather than the a priori incoherence of a straw man's position.