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No Abortions For Sluts

I almost never write about abortion, but sometimes people make it too easy. Here's Kathryn Lopez's latest criticizing Planned Parenthood:

Browse on over to their Web magazine for minors,, and you'll find, among the question-and-answer, a question from a teen who says she had an abortion "a little over a month ago," is pregnant again, and wondering if a second abortion is safe. Not only does the staff cavalierly tell the girl (who, I remind you, got pregnant again a month after her first abortion) that abortion is "very safe" the first or second time around, but that abortion "is much safer than giving birth." While they do throw in a line about preventing pregnancy by using birth control, there's no talk about adoption or other alternatives - such as raising the child, and getting help to do so - that a desperate girl could afford to hear.

I'd really like to believe that pro-lifers are actually pro-life -- that is, that their position on abortion is based on misplaced but sincere concern about taking the life of the fetus. But Lopez's parenthetical gives the game away, showing that to her it's all about punishing women for failing to stay chaste. Lopez can sort of see how someone might think it's OK to get an abortion if you're a good girl who made one mistake. But if you're a little slut who went and got pregnant a second time -- well, you had your chance, now you've made your bed and you'll have to lie in it. Someone who's genuniely pro-life or pro-choice wouldn't care how many times, or how closely spaced, a person's abortions are. Either abortion is murder and so every abortion is equally bad, or abortion is just fine and so it's fine to get one on your first or hundred and first pregnancy. But to a person with a puritanical view of sex, the mother's "number" is a critical piece of information in deciding whether she's a good girl who can be cut some slack or a bad girl who needs to face the consequences.


Rawls The Communitarian

People seem to be all worked up about the recent revelation that John Rawls' undergraduate thesis argued for a basically communitarian position. Rawls is the founder of modern Political Liberalism, a school of political philosophy whose core idea is that justice is about being neutral between ideas of the good life. The first and biggest criticism of Political Liberalism came from the Communitarians, who argue that communities should endorse and promote a shared conception of the good life.

The interesting thing to me is that Rawls has always struck me as having a fairly communitarian theory, even though he makes a point of framing it in Liberal terms.

Feminists (notably Susan Okin) quickly recognized that Rawls maintains a communitarian conception of the private family sphere, presuming it to be harmonious and holding a shared conception of the good. And he is quick to resort to communitarian solutions when he encounters a problem. For example, in order to produce the kind of intergenerational savings principle that he wants, he adds the ad hoc condition that the parties in the original position are not individuals but rather heads of lineages who therefore care about their descendants (an idea that's certainly not neutral between the childfree and grandkids-having conceptions of the good life).

Rawls's theory can be reconstructed in order to eliminate his communitarian baggage with respect to the family and intergenerational concern. But his communitarian instincts are woven deeper into his theory.

Despite his rhetoric about neutrality and the priority of the Right over the Good, Rawls is not in fact completely neutral between ideas of the good. He bases his philosophy on a "thin theory of the good," specifying certain "primary goods" like freedom and respect that are necessary to most comprehensive conceptions of the good. His theory is then neutral only between "thick" conceptions of the good that are consistent with his "thin" conception. Rawls is probably right that some conception of the good is a necessary starting point for a political theory -- but that's a communitarian idea, not a purely liberal one. There is much room for debate over how thick or thin that starting-point theory of the good should or must be (since thinness is a matter of degree), but that debate gets obscured when liberals insist that the thin theory of the good isn't really a theory of the good in the relevant sense.

What's more, Rawls's theory is motivated by an overarching meta-value of having a well-ordered society. Rawls presumes everyone would want a well-ordered society, and that they'd make significant sacrifices of their other values (such as saving infidels' souls) to achieve it. The quest for order as something intrinsically valuable (not just useful for ensuring the achievement of other values) is a basically communitarian idea.

The meta-value of a well-ordered society motivates Rawls's concept of an overlapping consensus. He rejects agonism (in which differing views are engaged in unresolved tension or struggle) or a modus vivendi (in which differing views agree to compromise on a political plan) in favor of an overlapping consensus, in which different views of the good all endorse the same political setup as being right and fully consistent with their own premises. Rawls's acceptance of consensus as an ideal is a clearly communitarian position (compare it to the surprisingly liberal conception of a leftist like Chantal Mouffe, who sings the praises of agonism). What's more, the possibility of an overlapping consensus is far narrower than Rawls presumes. That is, the range of comprehensive theories of the good that could fully endorse Rawls's political position (and hence be endorsed by him as "reasonable" and worth being neutral between) is rather small.

Finally, at times Rawls admits that his theory is applicable only to modern "Western" cultures -- a strange admission for a theory whose ostensible neutrality between conceptions of the good life ought to make it universalizable. This mission does, however, help to constrain the number of conceptions of the good life that he has to try to be neutral between, allowing his communitarian groundwork to fade into the background as unobjectionable within this one cultural context. (Though the facts of colonialism and immigration make one wonder just where a society made up solely of "Westerners" is to be found.) And here the meta-value of a well-ordered society pops back up again. In The Law of Peoples -- Rawls's proposal for an international political regime -- he states that nations based on other cultures need not be Liberal in the sense of adhering to his full political program. All he demands of other nations -- even authoritarian ones -- is that they be "well-ordered."

My point is not that Rawls is a full-fledged communitarian, but rather that he seems to have a significant communitarian basis in his theory.


You're Not Just Trying To Start A Debate

Todd Zywicki quotes Greg Lukianoff making the standard argument supporting people (in his case conservatives, but the same argument is used by liberals when the situation is reversed) who have been censured in some way for expressing distasteful views:

As we often have to point out, while politeness is a virtue, it is of minuscule importance when compared with robust debate and discussion.

The problem with this argument is not that it's wrong (though calling political correctness "politeness" tends to trivialize the real motivations behind it), but that it's so rarely actually applicable. Incidents of "PC censorship" are very rarely provoked by someone trying to honestly engage in "robust debate and discussion" about their unorthodox view, though the provocateur and his defenders immediately claim that motivation. The forum and the phrasing are almost never what one would choose if one wanted to start a genuine debate aimed at open-minded exploration of ideas.

The "I was just trying to start a debate" defense concedes too much, because speech need not be aimed at open-minded debate in order to be defensible. Speech is valuable as expressive conduct -- it allows you to make your views known, and make them known in the terms that you hold them, rather than terms chosen carefully to appeal to others' framings. Expressive speech lays a claim to recognition, as an agent who can frame his or her own viewpoint. I would note that far-left protests against center-left demands for "civility" tend to get this point right -- the right to be uncivil is typically grounded in the need to authentically express oneself, not in claims that they are just trying to engage in "robust debate."


An Observation About Racial Self-Identification

For my dissertation I'm doing surveys of people living in the urban-wildland interface in New South Wales and New Jersey, the vast majority of whom are white. The "race" question on the surveys is open-ended. In both locations I've had about 10% identify as some particular non-white race, and a handful of people write "human." In New Jersey, the remainder have referred to themselves as either "white" or "Caucasian." But in New South Wales, there was about a 25-25-50 split between "white," "Caucasian," and "Australian." This confirms my anecdotal observation that white Australians often use "Australian" as a racial term, whereas Americans rarely do that. I'm not sure how many of the "Australians" identify that way because the white dominance of the country leads them to conflate race and nationality, and how many of them do it as an attempt to declare their colorblindness.


What's a 17-year Difference in Life Expectancy, Between Friends?

Australian Minister for Health Tony Abbott is really scraping the bottom of the barrel to try to sell Liberal* government to Aborigines:

Later he said he believed indigenous people were better off now than when the Howard Government came to power in 1996. When asked to identify progress in the past 11 years Mr Abbott acknowledged more needed to be done but nominated an increasing number of friendships between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

So his example of what the Government has done over the past decade is not improvements in health (his own portfolio), or even improvements in the criminal justice system or economic development (both of which other departments of the government have some control of). It's friendship, the one major area of life that the government can't directly influence. I guess that's Abbott's face-saviong way of admitting "yeah, we've been sitting on our hands."

Admitting such things directly is, of course, not on the agenda, as the Howard Government continues to refuse to say "sorry" to the Aboriginal community. The PM says he's interested in "practical reconciliation," as if there's somehow a tradeoff between practical measures and apologies that prevents you from doing both (and as if doing one of the top things that Aboriginal people are requesting is somehow impractical). And speaking of refusals to apologize to indigenous people, the Pope has also stood by his earlier comments about how great the forced Christianization of Latin America was.

*By which Australians mean "conservative."

A Note on Comment Policy

I get few enough comments that I don't feel the need to institute an elaborate comment policy, but it's worth mentioning my approach to comments, since I just deleted one. I see my comments box as a sort of publicly-viewable inbox of feedback to me about my posts. So I reserve the right to delete comments that are:

1) Off-topic (including, but not limited to, spam). If you have something to say to me that's not directly related to a post, my email address can be found under the "Contact" link above.
2) Abusive toward other individual commenters (though you may abuse me all you like)
3) Obvious trolling (though I am willing to accept that people sincerely believe quite a lot of stupid things)

I take a very generous attitude toward the expression of offensive ideologies, so read the comments at your own (small) risk. Note as well that my policies are based on the particular nature and purpose of debitage, and therefore should not be taken as implied criticism of other blogs who have different policies.


Law and Fantasy

I've been meaning to write a big post about immigration, but instead let's talk about elves. In response to claims from various others about the underutilization of law as a plot device in fantasy literature, Ilya Somin cites the following example of the centrality of law to the archetypal fantasy, Lord of the Rings:

For my Property class, I once created a handout illustrating the various common law modes of property acquisition using examples from LOTR. We've got acquisition by creation (Sauron's claim to ownership of the Ring), acquisition by conquest (Isildur's claims); acquisition by find (Gollum); acquisition by exchange (Bilbo, winning the ring in a game with Gollum); and acquisition by gift (Frodo). Gollum could also claim ownership by adverse possession were it not for the fact that adverse possession does not apply against personal property.

I don't think this example quite proves the intended point. Certainly it shows you can use property concepts to analyze what happens in the book. And certainly some of the characters would use these sorts of concepts to assert a moral right to the ring (though Somin overlooks the important role of utilitarian justifications -- both Sauron and the Fellowship primarily claim a right to the ring on the basis of what they'd be able to do with it, and Galadriel and Gandalf both refuse to take it for similar reasons). But until Aragorn reclaims the throne, there is no overarching law -- no publicly established and enforceable code -- to which the characters could appeal in defense of their claims.

The relative paucity of law-based fantasy does, however, mean that I have a niche open to me. I've got the beginnings of several fantasy novels kicking around my computer. The most well-developed one features (as of chapter 4) key plot points arising from laws regarding the citizenship status of indentured servants, the seizure of property for tax arrears, and regulations on corporate takeovers.


Your Environmentalism Cramps My Style

"Selling clothes dryers in Arizona" ought to be a cliche for exceptionally talented salesmanship, akin to "selling iceboxes to Eskimos." Walking outside here in Pinal County anytime between February and November feels like walking into a dryer. Who would be silly enough to buy a big, electricity-consuming machine to do what a few hours hanging on $2 worth of clothesline will do for free?

I spent four years living in Worcester, Massachusetts, where just about everyone (at least in my working-class and college-student neighborhood) dried their clothes on a line. And this was despite the fact that the crowded houses give you little space for clothes drying, half the year your clothes were likely to freeze (even on an enclosed porch) before they dried, and the other half of the year Murphy's Law would whip up a rainstorm to undo your work. Southern Arizona, on the other hand, has all the space, heat, and dryness you could want. Yet in the 9 months I've lived here, I have yet to see a single clothesline.

The problem is not just that people are unwilling to do something marginally more laborious in order to save money and help the environment. After all, I don't use a clothesline here either. The problem in my case is that I'm not allowed to. My apartment complex, like most of the housing developments that are springing up all over the desert, has a rule against clotheslines. And it's not just clotheslines that are banned -- fabricated communities typically have all kinds of other rules, such as bans on installing solar panels or exchanging your thirsty lawn for xeriscaping. These rules exist because too many people don't want to live next to an environmentalist. The outward signs of more earth-friendly living, like clothes hanging out to dry, cramp their own style, disrupting their illusion of a white upper-middle-class existence that has bent nature to its will. Or at least the developers and property managers who write the rules think people think that way.

Rules explicitly banning environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices are not unique to the Southwest -- Al Gore's town in Tennessee only recently agreed to let him install solar panels. But comparing Worcester and Casa Grande, geography jumps out as a significant factor in explaining the differing use of clotheslines. While Worcester's neighborhoods may be more socially close-knit, they are physically fuzzy-edged, and lack formal neighborhood governance mechanisms. But I was struck upon moving to Arizona at the way built-up land is divided into 1/4-square-mile and 1/8-square-mile blocks, each with a 4-5 foot "privacy wall" around it and a big sign at the entrace with a developer-chosen name (usually something like "Mirage at Ghost Ranch, by Villago" that sounds like what a consultant in Manhattan would think evokes a "southwestern feel.") So it's much easier for Arizona to get burdened with rules promulagted at the level between the municipality and the individual household, where you can theoretically vote with your feet, but you can't vote with your ballot or voice.

What we need, then, is a law prohibiting communities and quasi-community contractual relationships (like homeowners' associations and apartment managers) from making or enforcing rules that prohibit environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices on aesthetic or property-value-loss-due-to-customers'-aesthetic-reactions grounds.


New Jersey Fire

A couple of interesting post-mortems on the big New Jersey fire:

New Jersey forest fire stokes tensions
Control project was in works before fire

I'll hopefully have something more interesting to say once I get my survey data analyzed.


Smart People Rationalizing

Mandolin* takes exception to a cartoon in which a character declares that "Political debates ... show how good smart people are at rationalizing." She says this view ignores that political debates have real consequences for people's lives, and that one side is actually correct, and she connects it to the tendency to draw an equivalence between the purported irrationality of both extremes in a debate. But I read the cartoon differently, because I don't think that confronting all sides' potential to be rationalizing is incompatble with the belief that one side is substantively correct.

In the second panel, the character in question says "how can I trust myself to know the truth about anything?" This shifts the point from being "a pox on both your houses" to an expression of legitimate self-doubt. Anyone who engages in political debate for any significant length of time will discover how resistant people's opinions are to being changed by the force of the better argument. This intransigence naturally suggests that there are a lot of "smart people rationalizing," and it's reasonable to self-reflectively ask whether you are one of them.

Mandolin implies that this feeling that all sides may be rationalizing only happens for people in a position of privilege with respect to the issue being debated, because those who are suffering oppression have direct experience of its wrongness and a personal stake in getting the right answer. I would question this on two grounds -- first, because even if your experience of oppression points you in the right direction, it's highly doubtful that it provides all the details of the proper analysis and solution. That is, a woman's experience may tell her that feminists are substantively right, but it doesn't conclusively settle the debate between liberal, socialist, radical, eco-, and other forms of feminism. Second, it takes some reflection -- including confronting the possibility that you may be rationalizing -- to be sure that your experience is pointing you in the right direction. Many men's rights activists and others in objectively dominant groups genuinely feel oppressed. It takes a process of self-examination to determine whether one's felt oppression is real or the product of narrow vision and an illegitimate sense of entitlement.

Further, there's good psychological evidence that most political arguments are in fact "smart people rationalizing." Psychologists have shown that most of our moral commitments are made through an unarticulated, "intuitive" process. Articulated verbal discourse about our views comes after, reconstructing (from a quasi-outsider's position) the reasons for holding our view rather than revealing or expressing (from an insider's position) the actual causes of the belief. This does not mean that our positions are random, unreliable, or wrong. It simply means that our political discourse does not entirely match our intuitive thought processes. So it's difficult to use the conscious tools of political discourse to verify the reliability and accuracy of our own intuitive thought processes, or to change others' minds. And therefore periods of doubt of the type expressed by the cartoon character are legitimate and even necessary.

*Original version of this post misattributed the post I'm responding to to Maia.


A Non-Falwell Obit

Whenever I had to answer one of those "who would you like to meet" questions, I always said "Gilbert White or Mary Douglas." Alas, it was not to be -- White passed away earlier this year, and Douglas died yesterday.


Kiosk Update

I haven't updated the Kiosk in a long time, but Chris Clarke has reminded me of another pet peeve: when people parody vegetarians and vegans by talking about how it's wrong to kill plants for food. It's not that I'm offended, or that I mistakenly think they're offering some kind of philosophical argument. Rather, it's that people usually do it as if it's some exceedingly clever idea, when in reality it's so painfully cliched.

Merger Mania

I'm linking to this update on the New Jersey fires, out of all of the ones available, because it comes from the "Journal Gazette Times-Courier" of Mattoon and Charleston, IL.


Jersey Burning

Just days after I got my last survey responses back, a big wildfire broke out in New Jersey. Thank you to the fire gods for holding off until after I finished my data collection.


Why The FGC Post Is Obligatory

Dora has a good post summarizing the problems with how many feminists talk about female genital cutting in ways the reinforce racism. The basic principle of progressive politics, as I see it, is that everyone should have a say in anything that affects them. This entails a right to control over one's own body, and therefore Dora is right to conclude:

there is always the option to support the women who are helping themselves.

In seeking the causes of the paternalistic and othering strain of feminist thought about FGC, she correctly points to the racial and imperialist assumptions of white first-world people. But I think a share of the blame can also be laid on anti-feminists, in recognition of the fact that any discourse is in part shaped by reaction to its opponents.

One of the most common charges made by conservatives against any type of leftist thinking is "moral relativism." Leftism by its nature advocates change from the well-known way of doing things, and tries to avoid privileging a single way of life, making it vulnerable to being portrayed as "anything goes." On the other hand, almost nobody -- even on the left -- is actually a moral relativist.

One common way that conservatives try to exploit the seeming tension between the left's commitment to diversity and its inability to accept relativism is to pose the dilemma of FGC. FGC makes a very appealing case for conservatives who want to force leftists to defensively denounce relativism, because the combination of body modification and sex makes the practice particularly viscerally horrifying to Westerners.

The FGC dilemma puts the left on the defensive, and the "stop it or allow it" choice makes it difficult to bring out the non-paternalist and non-relativist solution described above. The prominence of this dilemma leads leftists to spend lots of time dealing with this issue, either reactively or preemptively. Indeed, Dora even titles her post "The Obligatory FGC Post."

Benedict the Conquistador

It's common to talk about how social conservatives wish we could go back to the 1950s (or rather, a false santitized version thereof). But the Pope has decided to up the ante -- he's pining for the 1550s (via Echidne):

Indigenous peoples welcomed the arrival of European priests as they were "silently longing" for the Christian faith, and embracing it purified them, the Pope said in the last major speech of his trip before leaving Brazil on Sunday night.

Many Indian groups believe the conquest brought them enslavement and genocide.

The actions of the conquistadores (and similar coercive missionizing by Protestant groups) are one of the greatest stains on the history of the Church. The Pope should be on his knees begging for forgiveness from the people of Latin America (and Jesus). Instead he's on his balcony proclaiming that they secretly liked it when their people and their culture are destroyed.

Note too how Reuters enables the Pope's bigotry -- "many Indian groups believe" that being conquered led to bad stuff. In the real world, it's a basic historical fact that the Indians were enslaved. It's a basic historical fact that entire tribes were wiped out. The reason only "many Indian groups believe" these historical facts is because people like Reuters' craven reporters won't admit when there's a fact behind the claims.


Progressive Privilege

Chris Clarke recently had a very good post about the troubled relationship between environmentalism and feminism. Specifically, he pointed out that many of the lifestyle changes advocated by environmentalists, such as giving up energy-intensive modern conveniences, entail an increase in the sort of domestic work that has traditionally been assigned to women. Thus, pursuing environmentalism without attention to feminism will increase women's oppression.

The main blame for such counter-progressive impacts must, of course, rest on male privilege. Men who advocate environmentalist lifestyles can conveniently forget how their programs depend on exploiting women's labor. But in reflecting on my own "oh yeah, I hadn't thought of that before" reaction, it occurred to me that there was another form of privilege at work -- progressive privilege. Progressive privilege consists in a failure to recognize how things that you advocate will play out for other people due to a mistaken assumption that the world is more progressive in other respects.

Take the case of environmentalist eating habits. My wife and I are (lax) vegetarians and members of a CSA, among other lifestyle changes advocated by environmentalists. Clarke's post highlights how these practices, done in a context of a traditional gender division of labor, can increase women's oppression. However, I would venture to say that my household has a comparatively progressive division of labor. With respect to food issues, I do all of the meal planning and cooking, a good majority of the cleaning, and at least half of the grocery shopping (including picking up our CSA vegetables). Because I'm most familiar with how eco-friendly eating works in my own gender-progressive environment, it's easy to forget how it would play out for other people.

Polyamory/polygamy is another example. When I think about people with multiple partners, what springs to mind for me are several friends (all women) who have/had multiple partners in the northeast/west coast liberal fashion associated with the term "polyamory." In that context, loosening the norm of monogamy is not in conflict with feminism -- indeed, it arguably supports and extends feminism. But of course the environments in which my friends practice polyamory are unusually progressive. It's easy for me to lose sight of the fact that in most of the country, the prevailing unfeminist norms mean that polyamory would become fundamentalist-Mormon-style polygamy, which is oppressive toward women.

This is not to say that advocating eco-friendly eating or acceptance of polyamory is wrong. Indeed, progressive privilege is rooted in the fact that these things are not detrimental to the feminist cause when practiced in conjunction with feminism. The point is that progressive successes can make us lax about remembering the importance of pursuing progressivism as an interconnected whole rather than as a set of separate issues.


Genesis 1:26

Not everyone's gotten the "stewardship" message yet. An ad for the local Missouri Synod Lutheran church said:

Want to know ... Why humans with our higher intelligence rule over the earth? ... Then check out church!


Book Review: Paul Collins' Burn

I just finished Paul Collins' Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia, and I must say that I find it to be a curious book. Collins tells the story of bushfire in Australia from roughly the Black Thursday fires of 1851 to the Alpine and Canberra fires of 2003 (albeit not always in chronological order). The obvious point of comparison would be Steve Pyne's Burning Bush (1991) and The Still-Burning Bush (2006), which are usually treated as the definitive works on this topic. Collins' citations of Pyne are sparse and invariably favorable. Yet Burn makes a case nearly directly opposite to Pyne's.

Collins and Pyne have vastly different interpretations of the last 150 years of fire management. They agree that the early European settlers burned frequently. Pyne argues that the early 20th century saw a period of elite-mandated fire suppression similar to what prevailed earlier in India and later in the US. In his telling, this policy was unsustainable because of the impossibility of continued suppression over such a large and sparsely populated area, and its warrant was signed by the massive Black Friday fires of 1939. Collins, on the other hand, laments that the anti-fire scientific elites were unable to put their ideas into practice at all. As he sees it, the Black Friday fires were a result of widespread human-caused burning (both directly and via long-term alterations to the ecosystem), but the facts were grossly misinterpreted so that they were taken as an endorsement of continuing the pyrophilic status quo.

The political debate in Australia over fire management is roughly polarized into two camps: the "localists" and the "environmentalists" (though my research has found that this polarization is not reproduced among the general public). The "localist" position -- of which Pyne's more recent book reveals him to be an adherent -- is that rural people have a good understanding of their environment and can be trusted when they say that regular controlled burning is necessary to manage fuel loads. The "environmentalist" position states that anthropogenic fire is destructive to the ecology and so nature should be left alone. Connected to these two positions (in real life, though the connections are not entailed by logic) are constructivist and naturalist positions, respectively, with regard to nature.

Collins takes up the "environmentalist" side with gusto. He boldly touts the superiority of scientific expertise, portrays rural people as irresponsible and ignorant, and claims concern for ecology as the exclusive property of his faction*. But his rhetorical bark is out of proportion to his evidential bite, which consists at best in citing scientists who "correctly argue" for positions congenial to the "environmentalist" view, and at worst in psychoanalyzing the presumed pathological motives of those who disagree with him.

To get a more detailed look at what makes Collins' brief for the "environmentalist" side unconvincing, take his discussion of the "fire-stick farming" thesis. "Fire-stick farming" is the idea (popularized by Rhys Jones) that the Aborigines used fire extensively to modify their environment in ways congenial to the growth of plants that are tasty to humans or game animals. Among the sins of fire-stick farming proponents, Collins says, is that they ignore the diversity among different Aboriginal groups in different parts of the continent. Yet he goes on directly to claim that the Aborigines couldn't have had a significant environmental impact because the Dreaming worldview stresses continuity rather than change -- a blanket generalization if I ever saw one. (As it happens, the over-generalization charge against fire-stick farmers is not actually true. For example, Sylvia Hallam's Fire and Hearth, which Collins cites as a notable example of the genre, makes detailed distinctions between Aboriginal practices in different parts of southwestern Australia -- much like Benson and Redpath, who Collins names as excellent anti-fire-stick-farmers, do for the Sydney area. Further, while Collins' summary of the timelessness of the Dreaming is accurate, non-interference with nature does not follow from it. The Dreaming would bar innovative and advantage-seeking manipulation of the environment of the type that Euro-Australian miners, developers, etc propose. But traditional Aboriginal culture established a duty to use fire to actively maintain the environment established by the Dreaming ancestors, a practice quite consistent with the possibility that that environment is quite different from what would prevail if humans put down their fire-sticks.)

This is not to say that Collins gets everything wrong. Certainly burning on the scale and frequency advocated by some "localists" would be unfeasible, and destructive if we got close, so fire policy should focus on modifying the immediate surroundings of houses while allowing ecological values more sway farther out. He's right to point to the huge importance of weather in shaping fire disasters (though he emphasizes the importance of fuel conditions when it suits the "environmentalist" side, and he is curiously skeptical about the impacts of climate change). And he makes a consistent secondary point that the geographical pattern of settlement, resulting in long stretches of wildland-urban interface that are exceptionally hard to defend.

*Hence my use of quotes around "environmentalist."


Framing Veg(etari)anism

Hugo Schwyzer and I have both turned away from omnivory (though he's stricter than I am). But I find it interesting how different our perspectives on our diets are, and what those different perspectives say about our personalities.

Schwyzer is a big fan of self-discipline. He seems like a man forever in search of a cause which he can discipline himself to achieve, be it personal improvement (e.g. running) or social justice (e.g. tithing). In the past his affinity for self-discipline manifested pathologically in eating disorders, but in recent years he has re-channeled it toward veganism. He sums up his perspective on his diet as "radical self-denial on the part of the consumer as a tool for liberating the consumed."

I was struck by his summary because it's almost the exact opposite of how I think about my diet. Being vegetarian rarely feels like denial to me -- and when it does, it's of a passive sort. The operative personality characteristic in my case, the one that sits prominently at the top of my toolbox where Schwyzer keeps his self-denial, is accommodation. Whatever situation I'm in, I tend to accept it and adjust to it. This trait is not without its pathological side, but I've put it to good use with respect to my diet. I've basically gotten myself in a rut where I have trouble conceptualizing a meal with meat in it, and wouldn't know how to cook it if I did. The only times I really feel my diet as a discipline is when I'm eating at an American- or Mexican-cuisine restaurant and there are few meatless options -- but even here, it's less a matter of resisting the temptation to eat tasy meat, and more summoning the effort to find the one vegetarian dish rather than giving up and eating an unappetizing meat dish. Where Schwyzer would urge an aspiring vegetarian to think of their new diet as a sacrifice for justice, I would reassure them that once they've done it for a while they'll get used to it and it will come easily.

The larger lesson I would draw from this is that a strong personality-determinist view -- a "Nietzschean moral psychology" -- can move too quickly to its conclusion. Even if our personality traits are relatively fixed, any given macro-outcome may be reached by multiple pathways suited to different personalities.


It Is About Immigrant Rights

Commenting on the May Day protests, RonF writes:

But these marches aren’t asserting immigrant rights; legal immigrants, such as the ones I work with (2 of whom just got their citizenship after years of following American law) have no problems that I know of. These marches are specifically asserting and demanding certain rights for illegal immigrants, and to call them marches for “immigrant rights” without making that distinction seems deliberately deceptive to me, making it sound as if people are trying to withhold rights from legal immigrants.

I find it "deliberately deceptive" the way RonF, like many conservatives, insists on foregrounding the "illegal immigrant" versus "legal immigrant" distinction. The protests were simply about "immigrant rights." First and foremost, one of the critical rights the protesters were demanding is the right to be an immigrant. Ceteris paribus, nobody would want to be an illegal immigrant if they could be a legal immigrant -- but the fact is that the US immigration system is so arcane and restrictive that legal immigration is simply not a feasible option for the vast majority of people who want to come here.

Secondly, it's hugely ignorant to claim that legal immigrants "have no problems." I can't say for sure if these issues were on the minds of all the protesters in LA, since they tend to get forgotten in the focus on people who entered illegally, but the immigration advocacy community is certainly concerned about it. If you're not a citizen, you have to walk a very fine line lest you find yourself thrown out of the country. There are dozens of crimes -- some as small as posession of drug paraphernalia -- that can make you deportable, not to mention non-criminal violations of visa conditions like being enrolled in one two few credit hours of classes or taking a job when you're on a non-working visa. And getting deported isn't just a matter of being put on a bus to Nogales. Anyone that ICE wants to get rid of will get sent to prison* for a month before they even issue the charges, and then process your case so slowly that you start to wonder whether they're deliberately stalling in the hopes that you give up and accept deportation just to get out of jail.

*Technically it's non-punitive detention, but that hair-splitting is a farce when ICE detainees are sharing cells with people serving sentences for felonies.

Why Does John McCain Hate Our Troops?

Incidentally, once I found his website, I sent my esteemed Senator the following message:

Senator McCain,

I read with interest your recent comments that "open homosexuality within the military services presents an intolerable risk to morale, cohesion and discipline." I am baffled that you can make an assertion so insulting to our troops of all sexual orientations.

The militaries of many other countries -- including our close allies Great Britain and Israel -- have successfully allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly. Are American troops so much weaker than their British and Israeli counterparts that they can't handle serving alongside a gay man or lesbian?

The kind of disrespect you have shown toward homosexuals, and toward our men and women in uniform, make me ashamed to be your constituent.

Stentor Danielson
Casa Grande

I tried to strike a balance between reframing the issue in a way that might be persuasive to him, and letting him know I think he's a disgusting slug. Also, I let McCain's reference to homosexuality distract me from the fact that DADT bars bisexuals too.


I googled for "McCain 2008" so that I could find his website, and I noticed something interesting -- the top sponsored Google ad was for Rudy Giuliani. So I checked a few of the other candidates. It looks like Giuliani's ad people are worried about Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, but not Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback, or Tommy Thompson. I didn't notice any other candidates buying ad space in their opponents' searches.

Risk Thermometers

I've seen a number of references recently (can't remember exactly where) to John Adams' "risk thermometer" theory. In essence, the risk thermometer theory states that for any activity, a person has a certain level of acceptable risk. If something is done to make the activity safer, the person will adust their behavior to take more risks, bringing the overall risk level back up to the maximum acceptable level. He famously demonstrated this in a study of seatbelts, which failed to save lives because belted drivers simply drove faster and more recklessly since they knew the seatbelts would help keep them safe. The risk thermometer should be distinguished from the phenomenon of risk tradeoffs, in which addressing one risk produces another (e.g. chlorinating water to kill bacteria creates a risk of chloroform poisoning).

The risk thermometer idea is frequently cited in order to show the futility of safety policies. However, there are several qualifications that must be borne in mind (most of them touched on by Adams himself):

1. Adams summarizes the theory as "the potential safety benefit gets consumed as a performance benefit" (emphasis added). In other words, safety measures don't do nothing. They allow us to reap the benefits of taking more risks. So seatbelts, for example, may not save lives, but they let us get where we're going faster and with less anxiety. Of course, it's less politically efficacious to advocate a policy that increases benefits as compared to one that's claimed to save lives, except in cases where the benefit is allowing people to do things we think of as normal -- e.g. fixing the ozone hole so that Australians can sunbathe without fear.

2. The risk thermometer's operation depends on the risk victim being able to recognize the safety levels before and after the risk-reduction policy is implemented. Seatbelts are a good illustration of the risk thermometer because people have a fairly good idea of the risks entailed by driving various speeds with or without a seatbelt. But other risks, like toxic contamination, are much harder for laypeople to judge precisely, and so they're susceptible to behavioral overreaction or underreaction to changes in the riskiness level.

3. The risk thermometer's operation also depends on the risk victim being able to adjust the risk-creating behavior. This possibility for adjustment can be absent in two ways. The first is when there's no performance benefit to be had by riskier behavior. If the EPA cleans some of the lead out of the soil in the vacant lot next door, that's a pure reduction in my risk of lead poisoning. It would make no sense for me to go breathe in a bunch of extra lower-lead dust (thus offsetting EPA's efforts), because I wouldn't gain anything from it. My level of dust-inhalation is dominated by the unpleasantness of inhaling dust, with worries about lead being a very minor aspect of my decision-making. The second type of situation is when the victim is not the risk-taker. Adams discusses the example of pedestrians, who are put at greater risk when seatbelted drivers go whizzing by (though the example is imperfect because pedestrians can adjust their own risk thermometers by avoiding walking by roads).

4. The risk thermometer only applies within a single activity. Much to the dismay of economistic thinkers, people tend to compartmentalize risks, so that they don't make conscious tradeoffs between risks in different arenas. Thus, decreasing the risk of skin cancer won't lead people to make an offsetting increase in reckless driving. This compartmentalization makes thermometer-breaking of the type discussed in point #3 more common.

An interesting implication of all of these points is to call into question the common objection that reductions in environmental risks (such as contamination cleanups) is an inefficient way to promote safety. The typical claim is that for the money that's put into something like a Superfund cleanup, we could save more lives through traffic safety programs. Yet traffic safety is the paradigm case of a risk thermometer effect, whereas toxic cleanups have features that limit the thermometer -- the extent of the risk is unclear to the victims, and there is either little performance benefit to be had by changing behavior or else the benefit is something like "being able to let your kids play outside" that we consider to be of much more fundamental importance than "being able to drive faster."


Colgate Stuff

As an alumnus of Colgate University, I was amused to learn important Colgate-related news through the Volokh Conspiracy -- particularly when the news involves a plan to empower the alumni. Specifically, the "Accountability to Colgate Alumni Initiative" wants to make a majority of the Board of Trustees elected by the alumni.

The initiative is being pushed by SA4C, a group that has gotten lots of attention as opponents of the University's efforts in recent years to shut down the Greek system (though their agenda also includes concerns about how liberal the faculty is).

In the abstract, having a majority of the Board elected by alumni is a fine idea. In practice, it means having a majority of the Board elected by SA4C, since that's the only group of alumni organized enough to field candidates and know enough about where the candidates stand to cast a meaningful vote. On the other hand, the Initiative's system at least opens up the opportunity for another group to similarly organize. And the current system gave us Buddy Karelis*, so it's hardly a paragon of effective management.

*Former university president who was forced to resign after a couple years of ineptitude and being universally reviled by everyone affiliated with the university.


Climate Change Word Choice

There's a certain faction that insists that environmentalists ought to use the term "global warming" because Republican strategist Frank Luntz famously advised Republicans to say "climate change." In that light, I found it very interesting to catch this comment by "pimp hand strikes!" to a Matthew Yglesias post:

tut tut, yglesias. It is no longer 'global warming'. It is now 'climate change' since that allows us to cite any short term weather effects, whatever their nature, as proof of the coming apocolypse.

(I happen to prefer "climate change" not because of what the no-action side says, but because I think it's more accurate. But I also think quibbling over this one bit of terminology is a distraction from the larger question of proper and effective framing of the issue.)