Quote of the month

Actually found this on a friend’s facebook status.  Via Kung Fu Monkey:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

The faux amateur legislature

Like many states, North Carolina has this outmoded notion that our legislators should be amateurs.  Therefore we don’t pay them enough and don’t give them enough time to get their job done.  One of the results is that the legislature is composed of a lot of really old people who’ve retired and can afford to do this work for free and is especially unrepresentative of the people of the state.  My main man, Damon Circosta, director of the NC Center for Voter Education, has a really nice column about the foolhardiness of NC’s even-year “short session” in his latest Voter Update newsletter:

As our state transforms from a sparsely populated rural economy to a fast-growing hub of 21st-century technology, the issues that the General Assembly must tackle are becoming increasingly complex.

A legislature that essentially meets every other year may have been fitting when commerce moved at the speed of a mule. But in today’s world there is too much happening, too many challenges to face, for our representatives to convene only every now and again.

Given the increasing complexity of legislation and the difficulties in designing a two-year budget when business cycles are less than three months, what was once an opportunity to tie up loose ends is now a full-fledged deliberative session.

Despite the fact that short sessions are looking more like regular sessions, we still cling to old rules designed to keep short sessions short…

These rules aren’t keeping the sessions short, but they are obfuscating the legislative process.

The truth is that institutions need to change with the times, but that’s hard to do.  At this point, the outmoded rules and outmoded amateur ideal of the legislature are only serving to hold back progress in the state.  It’s really tough work to bring about these kinds of changes, but I’m glad that people like Damon are laying the groundwork so that, hopefully, someday, these sorts of things can improve.

Buffet is wrong

I haven’t blogged all that much on the economic mess (though, I’m surely I’ve plugged This American Life on the matter a few times), but I couldn’t resist a quick complaint about Warren Buffet’s Congressional testimony today:

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett told a congressional panel Wednesday that if he didn’t see the housing bust coming, he can’t blame the credit ratings agencies much for missing it, either…

Buffett, who declined to testify until he received a subpoena last week, said the ratings agencies weren’t the only ones blindsided by the crisis. “Looking back, they should’ve recognized it,” Buffett said, “but, like I said, I didn’t recognize it, and nobody I know recognized it.”

I’m generally a Buffet fan, but this is ridiculous.  It is not or was not, in any way, the ratings agencies job to see the bust coming or to predict the crisis.  It was their job to give accurate bond ratings on large groups of mortgages.  That they utterly failed to do.  You don’t need an MBA or degree in finance to know that when you’ve sold a bunch of homes to people who cannot actually afford the mortgage, you’re going to get a lot of foreclosures.  There’s a lot of blame to go around in this mess, but for my money, the ratings agencies deserve as much or more than anybody.

Malleus Bushium

I was watching an interesting National Geographic documentary last night, “The Witch Hunter’s Bible” (which I had DVR’s from early May).  It was about one of the most influencial, yet little known in modern times, books in history: the Malleus Malificarum.  The Hammer of Witches.  It’s basically a manual on how to uncover and prosecute witches and was the guidebook for the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.

I remember learning about this book in my very first college class at Duke, European History with Tom Robisheaux.  He’s quite the witchcraft scholar and has recently written a very well-reviewed and accessible book on the topic.

Of course, the key to finding and prosecuting witches is torturing them and getting them to confess.  The documentary estimated that tens of thousands of women were ultimately killed this way.  That’s a lot of false confessions.  Naturually, this got me to thinking about the modern use of torture.  Obviously, terrorism, unlike witchcraft is real, but you stil have every reason to believe that if you put people under extreme duress, whether physical or emotional) they’ll tell you whatever they think you want to hear.  That’s why torture as a matter of policy is not only immoral, but stupid.  I love Jonathan Bernstein’s formulation on the matter.

Just to add to that — remember (as many have pointed out) that for torture to be a good idea, it must:

1.  Get (accurate, usable) information;
2.  Get more (and more accurate) information than normal, Geneva-approved procedures would get;
3.  Get enough extra information that it’s worth accepting the very real effects of the negative publicity surrounding torture.

And of course that’s just the pragmatic case, not the moral case.

I’d add to that, a number 4– enough extra information to outweigh the consequences of all the false information you get (implied in Bernstein’s #2, but not quite the same thing).  Being fed a lot of false information because you are water boarding people and sleep depriving them has very real costs.  So, as for the Hammer of Bush, I’ll stick with my very simple formulation: immoral and stupid.

Virginia Voter fail

One of the things that has to make you question democracy is when such a complete and utter idiot like Ken Cucinelli gets elected to an important office such as Attorney General of the State of Virginia.  This guy is a pathetic ideologue.  His “family values” agenda is so strong he’s decided he needs to cover up left breast of the Greek Goddess, Virtus, who is semi-topless on the VA state seal.  That’s stupid and embarrassing, but  ultimately harmless.

What’s not at all harmless is the completely political way he uses the power of his office.  The lawsuit against health care reform is something a first-year law student can see is utterly groundless, but at least Cucinelli is joined with a bunch of other Republican nuts on that.  His attack on academic freedom and its first amenment implications is in a category by itself, though.   Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Richard Schragger explain:

Last week the University of Virginia decided to fight a sweeping subpoena served upon the institution in late April. State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli subpoenaed documentsin connection with five grants awarded to Michael Mann—a former UVA climate-change scientist who now teaches at Penn State. Cuccinelli is using a state fraud statute to demand thousands of e-mails between Mann and climate-change scientists around the world. The request was both broad and unprecedented…

Using the threat of criminal or civil sanction to pursue “academic fraud” is the paradigm First Amendment case. Academic fraud is essentially what the authorities charged Galileo with—when he dared question the conventional religious wisdom that the sun revolved around the earth. It is what prosecutors alleged when they threatened academics during the Red Scare. And it is exactly what Cuccinelli is alleging here. The UVA subpoena violates both the individual rights of academics engaged in the exercise of speech rights on matters of public concern and the autonomy rights of the university to act independently from the government…

“Academic fraud” is too easily used to suppress ideas that the authorities do not want to hear—in one case, the earth revolves around the sun; in another case, the earth is warming. It may be that what academics say is wrong, it may be that their methodologies are faulty, it may even be that they are twisting the evidence or making stuff up. But the government, through its prosecutors, cannot say anything about that. The First Amendment requires that we tolerate lots of speech that is plain wrong or mistaken—the university itself is designed to permit, even encourage, that kind of speech.

This is a really interesting essay about academic freedom and the 1st amendment which is well worth reading, but what struck me is the utter baselessness of Cucinelli’s legal case:

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court might someday take this case and clarify the core meaning of academic freedom once and for all.

It probably won’t, and the reason it won’t only illustrates how off-base Cuccinelli’s subpoena is. Cuccinelli chose to seek the Mann documents under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act (FATA), but as UVA’s lawyers pointed out last week in opposing the subpoena, Cuccinelli never explained (as required under the law) why he was seeking these documents. The act requires a fraud on Virginia citizens, yet all but one grant that Cuccinelli seeks to investigate are federal. Worse still, the state grant was made beforethe Virginia FATA became effective. This is not the first time Cuccinelli’s hasty lawyering leads one to wonder whether he seeks legal outcomes or political ones.

“Wonder?”  Clearly, Lithwick and Schragger are being too journalistic and gentle here.  There can be little doubt that this in an entirely political action and a gross abuse of the powers of his office.  I honestly believe that there are few worse things for a democracy than when those empowered to enforce justice abuse it for political gain (think about what dictatorships do to stay in power), which is why the Bush DOJ scandal was among the most unappreciated of Bush’s harms to the country.   Shame on the people of VA who voted for this guy.

I read books

It’s been shamefully long (Nov 2009) since I updated my book review list at my homepage.  I’m not quite caught up to what I’m currently reading, but this is only a few books behind now.  It’s been a good run, as I’ve read a lot of really good books since my last update, especially in the non-fiction category.  I’ll mention here Nurtureshock and Columbine, which actually merited blog posts back when I read them, as well as Crazy for the Storm, a terrific memoir.   Best fiction over the period was actually, Flashfoward by Robert Sawyer (way better than the TV show).  Anyway, check out my latest and let me know what you think or just drop some random book-related comments.

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