Friday, January 25, 2008

We Need to Stay in Afghanistan

The Manley Panel's report is pretty sensible. If Canada were to leave Kandahar, we would wrong those who trusted us, undermine our international reputation and provide a victory for al Qaeda and the Taliban. So we should stay. If we can guilt other NATO countries into helping out, great. But if we can't, we have our duty.

My own view is that every day the Taliban is out of power is a day when the world is safer than it was in September 2001. And it is also a day when Afghanistan has some hope of progress.

Manley's criticisms of the Harper government for allowing its centralized media strategy to undermine public confidence in the war is well-taken.

Here's hoping Manley can turn Canadian public opinion around somewhat.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Science: Sociology and Epistemology

Somebody said -- and it is true -- that the key to long-run academic success is to create a research program. Being brilliant and insightful won't do it, unless you give your graduate students something to do.

That seems to be true of all academic disciplines, whether scientific, social scientific, or whatever.

One puzzle for those of us who tend to think that science reveals the truth about the world is why it should do so. It is just another social practice, after all. You constantly run into Popperians on the Internet, but philosophers of science will tell you the positivist project of finding some extra-scientific criterion for why science works hit a dead end.

Could it be that any research project will eventually, through some collective Bayesian process, either die out or become a science? Is that crazy?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

What's Wrong With Fiscal Stimulus?

"Fiscal stimulus" is all the rage in the United States, as the possibility of a recession in a presidential election year looms. But it's a bad idea.

A deficit will boost aggreggate demand and a surplus reduce it, all other things being equal. But all other things aren't equal. The Federal Reserve has the ablity to raise or lower interest rates, and if it is following its own policies concerning an acceptable rate of inflation, a higher deficit will just induce it to raise interest rates. This will mean a fall in private investment without any corresponding stimulus.

Since it takes longer for fiscal policy makers to react to changes in the cycle than monetary policy makers, the general view of macro types is that counter-cyclical policy (reducing inflation in times of boom, boosting output in downturns) should be left to central banks, and not governments.

Moreover, over the longer haul, McCain, for all his acknowledged ignorance of economics, is right that getting spending under control is the most important thing. To spend a dollar, we need to take more than a dollar in private wealth, whether the spending is paid for by taxes or borrowing. So higher spending means lower growth. Obviously, that doesn't mean the government should spend nothing at all, but it does imply that keeping the government as small as possible is good for the economy.

Update: Greg Mankiw, not surprisingly, makes the point more cogently here. So did Paul Krugman, back in the day.

George Grant on Sixties Southern Resistance: "Last Ditch Stand of a Local Culture"

It's worth noting that Canada's own favourite paleoconservative, George Grant, occasionally expressed sympathy for the South's resistance to racial integration. From Lament for a Nation:

The classes that opposed Roosevelt were spent forces by 1965. The leaders of the new capitalism supported Johnson. Goldwater's cry for limited government seemed as antediluvian to the leaders of the corporations as Diefenbaker's nationalism seemed to the same elements in Canada. Johnson was supported not only by such obvious groups as Negroes and labour but also by the new managerial bourgeoisie of the suburbs. The farmers, who were supposed to be the last bastion of individualism, were not slow in voting for the continuation of subsidies. Four of Goldwater's five states were in the South. This was the last ditch stand of a local culture. But it is doomed to disappear as much as an indigenous French Canada.

Zero Sum Watch

Quoth Andrew Sullivan:

I'm really chuffed about McCain. But his squeaker in South Carolina makes it both more likely that he will be the nominee and less likely that he will unite the GOP enthusiastically behind him. He may have to put Huckabee on the ticket at this rate, which will make him uncomfortable and the economic right apoplectic. A very narrow and divisive McCain victory wouldn't be as bad for the GOP as a narrow and divisive Romney victory, but it's not great news either.
Similarly, the longer the Democratic race goes on, the likelier it appears that Clinton could well win the nomination in a way almost designed to maximally divide and demoralize her own party - and raise her own national negatives to stratospheric levels. It would mean a Clinton candidacy in the fall that had actively alienated independents and repelled Republicans, while undermining a key source of Democratic support - African-Americans.

If both parties commit slow suicide, does either win in the end?

Umm, yes. In a two party system, someone wins in the end.

Actually, I think the primary race will be worse for the Democrats, although it may not be bad enough to overcome the Republicans' natural disadvantages of being identified with an unpopular war and incumbency in an economic downturn. McCain is disliked for not being tribal enough -- he has shown himself quite willing to make his party look bad to make himself look good. But he's basically sound on the issues from a Republican point-of-veiw, and hard-core partisans are bound to come back to him.

On the other hand, if Ms. Clinton wins a divisive fight, it can't be good for the Dems. Obama seems to have united the constituencies of Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson against the constituency of Walter Mondale, augmented by the Hispanic demographic boom. I don't think the latter two groups are a sufficient national coalition. And people hate being on the receiving end of the Clintons' political skills. In the last two weeks, she's managed to piss off blacks and Reagan Democrats.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Exclusion of Unconstitutionally Obtained Evidence

The US Supreme Court appears to be rethinking the automatic exclusion of unconstitutionally obtained evidence.

Under s. 24(2) of the Charter, Canada has a "balancing test", although the Lamer Court (wrongly) imposed a strict exclusion rule for so-called "conscriptive evidence." In other words, if the police search your house with an improper warrant, the evidence will only be excluded if the breach is bad enough, but if they don't give you a warning about your right to counsel that conforms exactly with twenty five years of convoluted jurisprudence, any confession, no matter how damning and reliable, is out. The conscriptive evidence rule is completely inconsistent with the plain language of the Charter, as well as everything we know about its history, but it reflects the frustration of former defence counsel like Lamer in having idiots as clients.

I see two problems with exclusion of otherwise-reliable evidence as a remedy for constitutional violations:

1. It is no remedy at all for someone whose rights are violated, but who couldn’t be criminally convicted if the evidence was admitted. In other words, it provides no remedy for the (factually or legally) innocent.

2. It effectively punishes the past and future victims of the person who would have been convicted if the evidence had been admitted for the mistakes of the police. Ironically, that can only be justified on the most heartless kind of utilitarianism.

What there should be is a system of strict civil liability for constitutional breaches, where the damages are set high enough to make pursuing these cases economical for plaintiff lawyers.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ron Paul: Racist or Cultist?

When he allowed incendiary race-baiting in his early 90s newsletter, Ron Paul wasn't a bigot (strictly speaking, he wasn't motivated by bigotry). He was a cultist. He belonged to Murray Rothbard's odd little band, and for some reason Rothbard decided in the late eighties that it made sense to do some deep-entry move on the Buchananite/ white nationalist fringe. Why a Jewish libertarian thought this made sense is a mystery, but the guy was weird.

Paul went along for the ride for the same reason Tom Cruise doesn't like psychiatrists.

Update: For those into this sort of thing, Julian Sanchez and David Wiegel have the definitive insider take here. What exactly motivated Rothbard is interesting. What motivated Paul was his lamb-like faith in Rothbard.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Predictions are Hard, Especially About the Future: Post-New Hampshire Edition

One of the messages of behavioural economics is that we always over-react to the latest news. Obama still wins the Democratic nomination, and the Presidency.

I will, however, have to revise my Republican nomination prediction. I still think the reanimated corpse of Fred Thompson could have taken this thing, if only someone had bothered to actually reanimate it. But it was not to be. Romney will be taking the G.O.P. brand into November.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Why ask "What is Law?"

The debate between legal positivists and natural lawyers quickly become semantic. If you are so inclined, you can stipulate that "law" means "the occasions on which coercion is morally permissible/obligatory." Or you can say it refers to the social fact of how specialists in social practices like litigation and staute passing think. Each are perfectly sensible things to think about, and there is really no point in arguing about it: chacun à son gout. Study what you want.

So let's take the positivists preferred course, and study how legal specialists think. There's no doubt that they often refer to constitutive proclaimations of legal authorities. The law is X because Parliament or the Supreme Court said so. I can agree that it is X, even if I think it should be Y because the said bodies, however legally authoritative, are being morons.

But then you notice that Parliament, the Supreme Court, and everybody else will state the law in such a way that it needs everyday moral intuitions if we are going to apply it to physical events going on in the world. Contracts in Quebec and the US need to be interpreted in good faith. Statutes in Canada need to be seen as means to address some social mischief. Liability in negligence depends on whether the defendant acted reasonably.

And incorporating these moral intuitions into legal decision-making sometimes makes the law more, rather than less, predictible. The hardest thing to give an opinion about is how non-morally-inflected legal language will be interpreted. Most of us have a better idea what a jury or gut-based judge will think. So even on the dimension of certainty and respect for the will of the parties/legislature, which are the selling-points of positivism, we might be better off just incorporating moral intuitions into law.

Of course, we aren't always better off. People disagree about moral intuitions (although the extent to which this is true is probably exaggerated), and a big part of the point of law is to have a predictible way of resolving those differences. A natural lawyer would say that this fact is a major justification for authority. So just as looking at the actual practices of lawyers (as positivists recommend) provides partial support for natural law, looking at the moral justifications for coercion provides a basis for positive authority.

The difference is that the natural lawyer would say that authority is always limited by the reasons for it, and has less incentive to exaggerate the extent to which the actual legal system depends on command, rather than moral intuitions.

Anyway, if we actually concentrate on the way that a legal system does (or should) rely on each is a more interesting question than "what is law?"