Wednesday, April 30, 2003

More interesting searches that led people to this blog:

Who started slavery -- Wasn't me. Honest. I'm afraid that some of my distant ancestors may have played a role, but I can't pinpoint it any further than that.

Die Hard, Bruce Willis, summary, analysis, conclusion -- This person seemed to have been looking for some sort of academic paper on Die Hard. Much as I would like to supply such a paper, alas I cannot.
Here's a link to an academic survey on blogging. The researchers want lots of blog readers to participate.
I found this story amusing:
SEDALIA, Mo. - A cat was hungry and dirty but otherwise OK after hitching a 400-mile ride from Indianapolis to Sedalia on an 8-inch beam underneath a tractor-trailer.

The male Siamese cat was discovered Sunday after Chris Markley, a truck driver from Springdale, Ark., noticed a woman trying to flag him down. He pulled his rig into a parking lot and the woman pointed out a cat sitting on the fifth wheel frame under the trailer of his truck. * * *
Nothing was holding the cat onto the 8-inch beam or protecting if from falling to the asphalt, according to a police report. * * *

"We've had them before get into the back of trucks, but to ride on something that narrow for that long a distance, that's pretty unusual," Bogard said.
Reminds me of a Himalayan cat that my wife and I had for about two years. It was completely useless as a pet; all it ever did was hide somewhere in the house. Then, last summer, when we were moving from Washington, D.C. to Texas, the cat got lost. And how it got lost is a story of baffling stupidity.

We stopped in Tennessee to see my in-laws, who drove up from Atlanta. We all spent the night at a Holiday Inn. The next morning, as we prepared to leave on our way, we noticed that the cat (Sheba), who had been in our hotel room, was missing. Nowhere to be found. This was completely mysterious, as I knew for sure that we had not left the hotel door open.

We turned that hotel room upside down. We looked in the bathroom, under every piece of furniture, behind all the dressers, in every drawer, everywhere that you could think of. We called the cat dozens (tens?) of times. And there aren't that many places a cat can go in a Holiday Inn room. But it was gone.

We looked around outside a little, but decided it was hopeless. We needed to be going. So my wife told the guy at the front desk that if anyone found a cat, please keep it and call this number, etc.

Later that night, my wife called the hotel again. The cat had turned up. Inside the hotel room. What happened was, the people who were staying in that same room all of a sudden heard meowing coming from inside the bed. Yes, that stupid cat had somehow scratched a hole in the box springs, and had crawled inside to hide. And of course, it never meowed in response to all the dozens of times that we had called it that morning.

But that is not the end of the story. The guy who had been at the front desk in the morning had failed to pass on the message ("If you find a cat, etc."). So when the guy at the front desk in the evening got the call, "There's a cat in our room!," his solution to the problem was to get in a car, drive the cat away from the hotel, and set it loose in a field.

So that cat was gone, for good. I can't say I was sad -- it only got what it deserved. My wife was rather peeved with the hotel, however.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Another edition of "Laws That Don't Work"

Jonathan Klick and Thomas Stratmann, two George Mason professors, have put up a new article on SSRN: Offsetting Behavior in the Workplace. Here's the abstract:
This paper examines the effect of workplace safety regulations on worker safety. Studies in this area must overcome the issue that regulations and worker safety are jointly determined and that regulatory resources are likely to focus on the worst offenders. We examine the effects of regulatory enforcement in the 1990s on occupational death rates by state in major industries, and propose an instrumental variables technique to isolate the causal effect of regulatory enforcement on worker safety. We find that more inspections lead to higher death rates at a statistically significant level. This counter-intuitive result suggests that increased worker safety measures induce riskier behaviors on the part of workers.
What this thesis brings to mind is Sam Peltzman's famous 1975 paper on the effects of automobile safety regulation; to wit, safety regulation such as seat belt laws may have little benefit or even perverse effects because drivers respond by driving more recklessly. (Some may point out that the subsequent literature on the effects of auto safety legislation has shown mixed results, although one recent paper strongly supports the thesis of offsetting behavior.)

Saturday, April 26, 2003

One of the things that occasionally puzzles me is why movie theatres don't use Ramsey pricing, whereby a producer of multiple goods apportions the fixed and common costs to the final product prices in inverse proportion to the price elasticity of demand.

OK, I'd better step back a bit and explain. Many industries incur fixed and/or common costs. If you consider local phone service and long distance service to be two different products, then the costs of running copper wire to your house is a fixed cost (in that it is incurred whether or not you sign up for service) and a common cost (in that you can't trace it specifically to local phone service or long distance).

So the problem in such instances is how to incorporate those costs into the final product prices. A guy named Frank Ramsey came up with a theory on how to do this (actually his theory applied specifically to taxation, but was later extended to this case by Boiteux). His theory was that when you look at the demand for the various products at issue (without the fixed and/or common costs apportioned), you should try to figure out how to add those costs into the prices without changing the proportional demand for each product.

To do this, you have to allocate common costs in proportion to the inelasticity of demand for each individual product. Thus, if one product has a high inelasticity of demand (as is the case with food, cigarettes, etc.), more common costs should be incorporated into that product's price. And vice versa -- products for which the demand is elastic should pay for fewer common costs. Thus, second-best allocative efficiency is achieved.

What does this have to do with movie theatres? Well, they have a lot of fixed and common costs -- the costs of paying ticket sellers and ushers; the costs of running a very large building, etc. Yet they charge the same price for each movie -- The Matrix Reloaded costs the same $8.00 as The Real Cancun. There's no reason it should be this way. Given that theatres have to recover a certain amount of common costs, it would make more sense for them to raise the prices of movies that are immensely popular (as to which the demand is sure to be more inelastic) and lower the prices of movies that are duds (as to which the demand is more elastic).

So why don't they do this? I don't know. It's just one of the things that puzzles me from time to time.

While I'm at it, I might as well sing a few praises of Frank Ramsey. I first came across him when I read his 1927 article on "Facts and Propositions," where he laid out the redundancy theory of truth (similar to Quine's disquotational theory). Later, when I had occasion to read several books on natural monopoly regulation, I came across the concept of Ramsey pricing. Little did I imagine that it was the same Ramsey.

A Google search, however, revealed that yes, indeed, it was the same Frank Ramsey. And these were not his only accomplishments. He also wrote several other important works of philosophy, mathematics and probability theory, translated Wittgenstein's Tractatus and served as Wittgenstein's thesis advisor at Cambridge, wrote another economics paper that Keynes later called "one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made," and had as a teenager learned to read German in about 10 days. If you want to read more about Ramsey's remarkable life and career, this page is probably the best resource. Ramsey, more than just about anyone else I can think of, reminds me of the polymathic achievements of John von Neumann, whose work on game theory was (wouldn't you know it) foreshadowed by one of Ramsey's papers on utility theory. And to think -- Ramsey became ill and died at the age of 26! (If only he had lived a full life . . . .)

Friday, April 25, 2003

The Army has cleared the chaplain who caused so much controversy a few weeks ago with his clumsy attempt to joke around with a reporter:
The Army has cleared a Baptist chaplain from Houston of any wrongdoing stemming from a published report he offered filthy U.S. soldiers a dip in his 500-gallon pool in Iraq if they agreed to be baptized.

The Army determined that Josh Llano, 32, did not coerce any soldiers into conversion as an April 4 Miami Herald article indicated. The article generated numerous complaints that led the chaplain chief, Maj. Gen. Gaylord Gunhus, to call for an inquiry.
The first paragraph should give a clue that there was never anything to this story in the first place, as I have already pointed out. The very idea of offering soldiers a "dip" if they "agreed to be baptized" just doesn't sound plausible when you are talking about a Baptist. Some Christian denominations believe in baptism by sprinkling -- Catholics, Episcopals, etc. -- and if it were a chaplain from one of those denominations, it might be believable that the chaplain had said, "If you agree to be baptized -- i.e., sprinkled -- I will let you have a dip in the pool."

But Baptists believe in baptism by immersion, i.e., getting fully dunked in a pool of water. Thus, it doesn't make much sense that a Baptist minister would ever say, "I'll let you have a dip in the pool if you agree to be baptized," because being baptized simply means having a dip in the pool in the first place. In other words, the worst that this chaplain can be accused of having said is, "I'll let you be baptized -- and that means having a dip in the pool -- if being baptized is what you really want to do." And I just don't see anything wrong with that.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Via the most thought-provoking movie review site on the entire Internet (I'm speaking of Metaphilm, of course), I find that the makers of The Matrix have put up a website that features essays on the movie by 14 different philosophers. Some names I don't recognize, but others will be familiar to anyone who has read much of the literature on philosophy of mind (e.g., Hubert Dreyfus (one of the most famous critics of AI), Colin McGinn, and David Chalmers, whose website on philosophy of mind has been one of my favorite resources since I first found it about 6 years ago). Anyway, the Matrix philosophy site looks like a fantastic bunch of reading, if you're into that sort of thing.
I've been reading a book called The Nature of the Firm: Origins, Evolution, and Development, which is a collection of essays/lectures presented at a conference on the 50th anniversary of Ronald Coase's classic paper "The Nature of the Firm" (originally written when he was 21!). The book begins with a few essays by Coase on the meaning and influence of his paper. At page 62, he writes this sentence:
Transaction costs were used in the one case to show that if they are not included in the analysis, the firm has no purpose, while in the other I showed, as I thought, that if transaction costs were not introduced into the analysis, for the range of problems considered, the law had no purpose.
If you wanted a one-sentence summary of Coase's entire body of work, you could hardly do better than that.

Friday, April 18, 2003

In response to this post by Jacob Levy ("Ah, to have been at Harvard in the 1970s, able to hear Rawls and Nozick and Sen," etc.), Brad DeLong says that he "never got much out of Nozick" in person. (This, I have to say, reminds me of the reverse snobbery one occasionally comes across -- the sort of person who purports to be above liking Beethoven or Shakespeare.) Anyway, Matthew Yglesias responds to DeLong as follows:
That's the exact reverse of my reactions twenty or so years later. I read Anarchy, State, and Utopia sophomore year and was underwhelmed. Then in the fall of my junior year I enrolled in Nozick's seminar on the philosophy of history and was almost immediately blown away by the man who was, quite simply, a lot smarter than anyone else I'd ever met. Not only was he brilliant with the quick arguments, but he also had an astounding range of interests and knowledge and managed to integrate into one course topics from political philosophy, Russian history, the philosophy of science, the counterfactual account of causation, and God knows what else.
I'll second Yglesias on this. For six weeks in 1998, I took Nozick's seminar on Philosophy and the Law. (Six weeks because he had to cancel the course at that point for health reasons.) He blew me away with his ability to think on the fly. And no matter how quickly he talked, you could tell that his brain was racing far ahead of his mouth. An amazing professorial presence.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

One of the most provocative law review articles I've read this year is Choi and
Gulati's A Tournament of Judges
, in which they argue that Supreme Court Justices should be chosen purely based on the outcome of an ongoing "tournament" among lower court judges, with the criteria for "winning" a Supreme Court slot being things like citations, reversals by higher courts, etc. Lawrence Solum disagrees strongly in a post well worth reading.

Could Fareed Zakaria one day be Secretary of State? That's the theme of this column. I liked this quote:
Zakaria became a conservative, he says, from observing the Indian state. "People often say, 'How could you, living in India, end up a Reaganite?' Well, the answer is, live in India. There are two things that people don’t understand. One is the degree to which a highly regulated economy produces masses of corruption because it empowers bureaucrats. It just has to be seen to be believed.

"The second," he continues, "is that you are very quickly inured to the charms of pre-industrial village life. Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask."

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Virginia Postrel has an excellent op-ed in the Boston Globe on the tax code's marriage penalty. Key passages:
How did marriage and taxes form their unholy union? As public-finance economists point out, most Americans want the tax system to do three things: to be progressive, to treat households with the same incomes equally, and to treat all individuals with the same incomes equally, whether or not they're married.

The problem is, we can have any two of those things at the same time, but not all three. No matter how often politicians and various interest groups suggest otherwise, no technical fix can eliminate the marriage penalty while preserving progressive taxation and ''horizontal equity.''
* * *
The penalty persists not only because Americans want contradictory things from the tax code but because the code's very distortions simultaneously serve two political constituencies: traditionalist conservatives who don't want married women to work, and redistributionist liberals who don't want them to earn too much money.
Imagine that you have three households. In Household A, there is one wage-earner with $50,000 in income. In Household B, there is one wage-earner with $100,000 in income. In Household C, there are two wage-earners with $50,000 in income each.

If you believe in progressive taxation, then you should want Household B to pay a higher tax rate than Household A. If you believe in treating households equally, then you should want Household B and Household C to pay the same tax rate, because they both have a total of $100,000 in income, after all. But then that creates a "marriage penalty" -- because the two wage earners in Household C are now paying a higher tax rate (because they belong to a $100,000 household) than if they were single (in a $50,000 household).

But if you tax the two wage-earners in Household C as if they were single -- just looking at their individual $50,000 incomes -- then you're penalizing the one-wage-earner household for getting its entire $100,000 income from one person rather than from two. In other words, getting rid of the marriage penalty creates what one might call a "stay-at-home parent penalty".

So how does one decide which is worse -- the marriage penalty or the stay-at-home parent penalty? I don't know. But the root cause of this dilemma is progressive taxation.

Saturday, April 12, 2003

I've been blogging a lot the past few days. Why, you might ask? Because my wife and kids have been out of town visiting my in-laws, and I'm finally finished writing/editing two law review articles and submitting them to various journals so that they could be published this fall. Anyway, I've had a bit of extra time to blog.
I think the best passage from Justice Thomas's dissent in the Virginia cross-burning case was this passage discussing the plurality's decision to strike down the Virginia law insofar as it allowed a "presumption" that any cross-burning was done with the intent to intimidate:
What is remarkable is that, under the plurality’s analysis, the determination of whether an interest is sufficiently compelling depends not on the harm a regulation in question seeks to prevent, but on the area of society at which it aims.

For instance, in Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703 (2000), the Court upheld a restriction on protests near abortion clinics, explaining that the State had a legitimate interest, which was sufficiently narrowly tailored, in protecting those seeking services of such establishments "from unwanted advice" and "unwanted communication." In so concluding, the Court placed heavy reliance on the "vulnerable physical and emotional conditions" of patients.

Thus, when it came to the rights of those seeking abortions, the Court deemed restrictions on "unwanted advice," which, notably, can be given only from a distance of at least 8 feet from a prospective patient, justified by the countervailing interest in obtaining abortion.

Yet, here, the plurality strikes down the statute because one day an individual might wish to burn a cross, but might do so without an intent to intimidate anyone. That cross burning subjects its targets, and sometimes an unintended audience, to extreme emotional distress, and is virtually never viewed merely as "unwanted communication," but rather, as a physical threat, is of no concern to the plurality. Henceforth, under the plurality’s view, physical safety will be valued less than the right to be free from unwanted communications.
Thomas is absolutely right. It is remarkable to contrast the plurality's solicitude towards people who might want to burn crosses without any desire to intimidate (think of all the poor, misunderstood cross-burners whose hearts are pure in this regard), with the Court's lack of solicitude towards people who were subject to up to 6 months in jail for nothing more than peacefully handing out leaflets on a public sidewalk.
Lots of bloggers were up in arms about the Army chaplain who supposedly had exclusive access to water in a particular area and wouldn't let soldiers have access to it unless they agreed to listen to a sermon and be baptized.

Now Radley Balko posts this item suggesting that the chaplain may have been joking around with the reporter, who took it far too seriously:
My friend who has connections to the big cheese Army chaplains writes with an update on the Army chaplain who boasted about withholding water from troops until they accepted Jesus:
So I spoke with the chaplain who I go to church with. He was the one who was initially saying that the man was going down.

Their investigation is far from complete, but he told me that it appears to be a case of a young, stupid chaplain not following the first rule of chaplain/journalist relations: Journalists either willfully or unknowingly don't understand religious humour.

Apparently the guy was making a deliberate joke and was completely in jest. Already, all the typical suspects -- People for the American Way, ACLU, Separation of Church and State folks, etc. -- are threatening litigation.
I suspected that the chaplain was joking from the first time I read the story. At the end of the article that started it all, you find this:
Earlier this week, word went out that portable showers might be installed here soon, but Llano was undaunted.

''There is no fruit out here, and I have a stash of raisins, juice boxes and fruit rolls to pull out,'' the chaplain said optimistically.
Isn't it pretty obvious, even in print without the advantages of seeing his facial expressions and hearing his tone of voice, that this chaplain was just pulling someone's leg?

Anyway, it was always unclear to me just what people found objectionable about the story in the first place. My friend Eugene Volokh wrote, "Federal employees can't distribute federal property (and I'm pretty sure that Llano didn't truck the 500 gallons of water himself in his personal stores) based on religion. They can't say 'Only Christians get to bathe, others don't; they can't say 'You can only get to bathe if you agree to become a Christian.'"

Well, sure. But the chaplain didn't say that at all. He never said, "Here's a pool of water in which you can bathe, but only if you're a Christian and participate in a separate ceremony of baptism." Rather, he was telling people, "I will baptize you -- which might feel really nice, by the way -- if you are really and truly interested in becoming a Christian." And what's wrong with that? I would assume that chaplains have every right to say, "I will only baptize people who are really interested in becoming a Christian, not just anyone who walks up and wants a bath."

Granted, if the chaplain was speaking seriously, he shouldn't be attempting to entice people to undergo religious ceremonies for mercenary reasons -- but that is a matter between him and God. But as for whether it's fair to the soldiers, there is nothing wrong with a chaplain of the Christian faith making a religious ceremony available only to people of his faith. What else would you expect?

If a Jewish chaplain said that he had matzah available for Jewish soldiers to eat at Passover seder, no one would find that shocking, even if the chaplain added jokingly that it was nice to have something to eat other than MREs. We wouldn't expect the Jewish chaplain to use up all his supply of matzah handing it out to every random hungry soldier who walked by, and we shouldn't expect the Christian chaplain to use up his baptismal water giving baths to soldiers who aren't Christians and don't intend to be. Right?

Thursday, April 10, 2003

There's an idea floating around about what to do with Iraq's oil -- set up a trust fund similar to Alaska's, and distribute the income to each Iraqi citizen every year.

I like the idea. What I'm trying to figure out is who came up with it first. Michael Barone argues for it in his April 14 column, but according to this post from Instapundit, Barone says he got the idea from Lou Dolinar at Newsday. Josh Marshall wrote of the idea in this April 9 post, but he credits the idea to the New America Foundation's Steven Clemons, who put the idea forward in a NY Times op-ed this week. Then there is Michael Feroli, who argued for a similar plan in a Feb. 12 article on TechCentralStation.

Anyway, it's a good idea, and it's unsurprising that lots of people might come up with it independently.

UPDATE: Today, Sunday April 13, an economics professor named Scott Pardee has an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing for -- you guessed it -- the Alaska model of distributing oil money.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

This morning I found my son Jefferson taking his toy hammer to the Little Tikes basketball standard he'd pulled into the center of the playroom. He was watching CNN.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Hitting the statue of the bad guy."
"You're pretending the basketball standard is the statue of Saddam Hussein?"
"No, Buzz Lightyear is pretending to be the bad guy. None of my other toys would fit."
(Note Buzz trapped in the basketball net.)

When the Saddam statue finally fell, Jefferson danced along with the Iraqis. But I made him stop jumping up and down on the fallen basketball standard.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

The concentration of ownership over major media is a huge source of concern for many people (mostly on the left, it must be said). For example, here are links to articles by Dan Gillmor, Mark Crispin Miller, as well as noted telecom scholar Molly Ivins, whose op-ed is modestly titled "Media Concentration is a Totalitarian Tool." You can find also lots of websites devoted to critiquing concentrated ownership (i.e., here, here, and here). And that's just a smattering of the innumerable hits you get when you search for "media concentration."

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, however, is of a different opinion. Here's what he had to say in a March 27 speech:
Whenever media ownership debates unfold, it isn't long before every perceived ill and every dissatisfaction with what we see and hear on television and radio is paraded out as a consequence of too much concentration.

If you listen you can hear it now. It is suggested that concentration is to blame for indecent or coarse television programs -- ignoring that the media was substantially more concentrated in the supposedly clean 1950s. It is argued that TV has become too violent. It is argued that quality of television has declined and that TV is too bland and homogenized because of corporate conglomeration.

I do not doubt at all that there are pitfalls to big media, nor do I doubt that there are benefits. But I do not think concentration itself is the root cause of the quality of content we see today, I think that fierce competition is.

A monopolist has the luxury occasionally of putting aside what sells in order to air content that might be less appetizing (even if nutritious) because its audience is captive.
Such was undoubtedly the case in the era of Cronkite and Murrow. But, where choice abounds in a competitive market, one can ill-afford not to give 'em what they want.' Today, if you do not capture a viewer's attention and hold it, he simply clicks his remote control to find something that does. Or, he turns off the TV and turns on the Playstation or Xbox. Or, he strays to the computer to surf the net. Or, he picks up a paper, book or magazine. Or, he listens to music on his MP3, radio or stereo. Or puts in a DVD to watch a movie. Or, God forbid, unplugs entirely and goes out to take a walk with his kids.

My warning is this: While we are right to concern ourselves with Citizen Kane, we should not use that concern to justify the resurrection of King George. Our founding fathers said little about commercial owners of news and print, but they reserved the top spot on the bill of rights to condemn the government from foisting its values, preferences, viewpoints or tastes on a free people. That is where the gravest constitutional danger lies.

It is said that the public interest is not just what interests the public. I respect and share the sentiment. But the danger of this aspiration, when invoked in regulatory policy, is that it implies a justification to require that the public accept by law what it is uninteressted in accepting by choice.

Quite provocative, no? Powell is actually suggesting that media concentration could be beneficial, and that competition is what causes the stupidification (to coin a word) of major media sources. I wonder what the leftists would say about this argument.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Several bloggers were apparently impressed with a recent column and a followup by Timothy Noah. Sam Heldman says this:
I don't think that I saw Prof. Volokh or even pseudo-Prof. Reynolds make any attempt at answering Tim Noah's penetrating question in Slate: if popular access to guns is such a great bulwark against tyranny, as gun supporters often tell us, then how did Iraq (with ready popular access to guns) get such a tyrannical government? Noah has a follow-up column on the question today.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden adds:
I've long been a liberal with serious doubts about “gun control.” But Timothy Noah asks a good question: If gun ownership is such an effective and important bulwark against tyranny, how is it that a country in which most households own at least one gun turns out to be one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world? The country in question being, of course, Iraq, where it turns out that practically everyone is packing heat.

Noah posts an overview of responses here, none of which are awfully impressive. * * * What about it? If gun rights are so all-fired important, why is Canada a free society and Iraq anything but?
Noah's question could have been a good one, if his opposition (ranging from the modern NRA to founding fathers like Madison, Jefferson, and Adams) had argued as follows:

"The presence or availability of guns is a 100% fool-proof guarantee that the country in question will never fall prey to a tyranny. And conversely, the regulation of guns is a 100% guarantee that the country in question is a tyrannical dictatorship."

But few if any gun advocates have ever made such an absolutist argument. What gun advocates and the founding fathers argue, by contrast, is something more sophisticated --- that the presence of guns is an aid in preventing tyranny, not a guarantee that no tyrannical government can possibly arise. Similarly, they argue that a ban on guns is one factor that makes resistance to tyranny more difficult -- not that any gun regulation automatically makes the government tyrannical right then and there.

What Noah should have asked is whether the availability of guns to Iraqis has, in some instances, prevented acts of oppression that might otherwise have occurred. If the answer turned out to be No, then he might ask what other complicating factors might have diminished the effectiveness of the citizens' weaponry in those situations. If it turned out that there were no complicating factors and that guns simply weren't effective at all in making oppression less likely, then Noah would have scored a point against the gun advocates' argument. As it stands, he has merely managed to refute the straw man argument that guns automatically prevent tyranny with 100% effectiveness regardless of any other characteristics of the government/society in question.

For the sake of balance, I should say that gun advocates are guilty of the same sort of argumentation at times. When gun control supporters argue that easy availability of guns makes crime more likely -- an eminently disputable point -- one response that you sometimes hear is, "What about Switzerland? Every household has a gun, yet crime is low." While that may be perfectly true, it is not an argument that refutes the gun controllers' point. Switzerland's low crime rate may be due to many other factors, and it might have even less crime if fewer people had guns. The question is not, "Is crime solely caused by the number of guns?," but, "Given all the other factors that affect crime in a society, does the availability of guns positively correlate with the level of crime?"

Same as to tyranny. The question is not, "Do guns automatically prevent all tyranny?," but rather, "Given all the other factors that affect whether or not a government is tyrannical, does the availability of guns positively correlate with the ability of people to resist tyranny?" The sophistical question posed by Noah (and echoed by Heldman and Hayden) is irrelevant to that sort of inquiry.

UPDATE: I should point out that for the purposes of this post, I have assumed the truth of Noah's premise -- that Iraqis do indeed have ready access to firearms. As Megan McCardle and Glenn Reynolds point out, however, Noah's evidence for this is based on a very dubious and unconfirmed source.
Another very cool article about our Special Ops forces in Iraq.

Saturday, April 05, 2003

A pet peeve: People who write sentences in the following form: [Subject] [does not, did not, is not, etc.] [some action or quality] because of [X].

That probably makes no sense whatsoever, so here's an example (meant to be surrealistic): "Jeffrey is not invisible because he is Samoan." Another example: "Jack does not love Jenny because she is blond."

What irks me about these types of sentences is their ambiguity. Jeffrey is not invisible because he is Samoan -- he's invisible because he's Hawaiian. Or, Jeffrey is not invisible because he is Samoan -- and everyone knows that Samoans are always visible. Jack does not love Jenny because she is blond -- he loves her because she plays the harp. Or, Jack does not love Jenny because she is a blond -- whereas if she were a redhead, sparks would fly.

In other words, you never know whether the sentence means that the person really isn't the something and the "because" is meant to explain why, or whether the person IS the something and the "not" and the "because" are meant to imply an alternative explanation for the something.

I'd better quit while I'm ahead.

Friday, April 04, 2003

So the new US News rankings of law schools are out. One comment I would make is that it seems odd to me to see Stanford ranked second and Chicago ranked sixth. I haven't been to either school, but I did take classes from a total of four visiting professors who had taught at those schools -- two from Chicago and two from Stanford. From my experience, my guess would be that the relative positions of those two schools should be reversed.

The ex-Chicago professors were Michael McConnell and Elena Kagan (just named the dean of Harvard Law). Both Michael and Elena were extremely rigorous and sharp. They demanded lots of reading. They called on students without warning to interrogate them about the topic at hand, and did not allow passing. My impression was that they were used to seeing students who were on the ball, bright, and willing to do lots of work.

The visiting Stanford professors were George Fisher and Mitchell Polinsky. Both of them were very sharp as well, but they both seemed to have very low expectations of what a class was capable of. I've never had classes with as little reading as Fisher and Polinsky assigned. At the beginning of the term, Fisher would apologize in class for taking things too quickly (when, to my mind, he was taking things at an excruciatingly slow pace compared to every other professor). He even would express surprise when, after having laboriously explained a rather simple topic, none of the students needed to ask clarifying questions before moving on. My impression was that they were used to teaching students who had little patience for study or work. (On the other hand, perhaps they had both been told not to expect much of Harvard students compared to those at Stanford.)

I should emphasize that my experience is very anecdotal and I have no idea whether it is representative of the general experience at those two schools. Still, there it is.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

One of the tiresome things about reading other blogs these days is the incessant urge to comment on how our military strategy is going in Iraq. No one who is sitting at home in America getting their news from CNN or online newspapers can possibly have any real idea what our military strategy even is in the first place, let alone how well it is working. Most of what we see reported now will turn out to have been false (whether because of deliberate disinformation or errors by reporters) or inaccurate or woefully incomplete. We won't know the real story until someone with inside information writes a book about it a year from now, and even then there will be a lot of stuff we'll never know. And, to be quite blunt, even if American news sources provided complete, accurate, up-to-the-minute information about 1) what is actually happening in Iraq, and 2) what our military plan is, I would still see no particular reason to care what a public policy professor or an undergraduate philosophy major or a graduate student in colonial history or a nameless partisan hack or a lawyer have to say.

There now. Got that out of my system.