Archive | 2010

Advice: Citizens Should Stockpile Their Own Antibiotics in Case of Anthrax Attack

Might sound alarmist, until you realize that the author is Stewart Baker, a former General Counsel of the National Security Agency, the Assistant Secretary for Policy at the United States Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009 (where thinking about possible attacks, including biological attacks, was a big part of his job), and on security policy more of a big-government conservative than a let-everyone-do-his-own-thing libertarian.

Baker definitely knows facts on this topic that we don’t, so I’d take his advice quite seriously — the details of his argument and his suggestion are at his blog, here, and there’s a follow-up on the bigger picture here. (The news hook prompting his post was this Executive Order issued a few days ago.) [...]

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Saturdays with Stendhal 1

In the past, on other blogs, I have run a series called Sundays with Stendhal – quotes from the Master’s various writings.  You either love it or you hate it.  With the new year, I have decided to resurrect it – sometimes just quotes, sometimes with commentary.  But I’ve decided to make it Saturdays with Stendhal, as we already have the pleasure of Sunday Song Lyrics.  But let’s declare today an honorary Saturday, and start with this quote from The Red and the Black, apropos of the chapter on human rights and the UN that I am currently completing – my translation is, um, a little loose (“human rights” for “liberties”):

“Julian fell asleep, dreaming of honors for himself, and human rights for everyone else.”

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Confusing Overrepresentation with Domination

An especially pernicious common fallacy is the assumption that if a given group is overrepresented in some field, that must mean that they dominate it, and are using their supposed “domination” to promote the group’s interests. My better half quotes this example described by historian Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times:

Of course underlying and reinforcing the paranoia [of the Nazis about Jews] was the belief that Weimar culture was inspired and controlled by Jews. Indeed, was not the entire regime a Judenrepublik? There was very little basis for this last doxology, resting as it did on the contradictory theories that Jews dominated both Bolshevism and the international capitalist network.

In the 1920s, Jews were indeed overrepresented (relative to their percentage of the general population) among both Bolshevik leaders and international capitalists. At the same time, non-Jews still greatly outnumbered Jews in both groups. A closely related fallacy was the assumption that overrepresentation in a field proved that the Jews involved in it were using it to promote some specifically Jewish interest. In reality, Jewish capitalists tended to behave much like gentile ones, focusing primarily on maximizing their profits. Jewish communists such as Leon Trotsky were brutal totalitarians. But their gentile counterparts, such as Lenin and Stalin, were much the same. There was no real evidence that either Jewish capitalists or Jewish communists were promoting specifically Jewish interests in any systematic way. Indeed, Jewish communists in the USSR actually supported the regime’s suppression of Jewish culture and religion.

At this point, readers may be tempted to say that the crude errors of 1920s anti-Semites don’t have any relevance to us. After all, we are a lot smarter and more sophisticated than they were. Perhaps so. But similar fallacies in modern discourse aren’t hard to find, and are certainly [...]

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A 1788 Dublin Edition of Pleas of the Crown — And A Possible Supreme Court Connection

I recently purchased a copy of Volume I of the early criminal law treatise, William Hawkins, A Treatise of Pleas of the Crown; or, a system of the principal matters relating to that subject, digested under proper heads. At common law, non-misdemeanor English crimes were the causes of action brought in the King’s court — thus a treatise on pleas of the Crown was a treatise on major crimes. The Hawkins treatise was first published in 1716, and it is one of the handful of sources regularly used to understand the common law of crimes (together with Volume 4 of Blackstone’s Commentaries, the Third Part of Coke’s Institutes, and Hale’s Pleas of the Crown).

The copy I purchased is a 6th edition as reworked by Thomas Leach and published in Dublin in 1788. My understanding is that the Dublin editions were pirated: They were published in Dublin to get around English copyright law. Pirated or not, I found this one on the cheap. Nice original copies of Hawkins seem to run around $700 to $1,000, but I found this for only $30 (albeit just the 1st of two volumes, and in need of rebinding).

I mention all of this in the spirit of my recent post on the 19th Century Supreme Court letter because I found some intriguing markings in and on the book. Inside the front cover, I found two stamped markings, “Rockingham County.” And on the spine, there is a black label that says “Woodbury.” Here are photos of the spine, inside the front cover, and the title page of the treatise:

The combination of “Woodbury” and “Rockingham County” is intriguing because Justice Levi Woodbury, a Justice of the Supreme Court from 1845-1851, was born, raised, and buried in Rockingham County, New [...]

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More Airport Security Tradeoffs

Last week, I wrote about several underappreciated tradeoffs in airport security policy. Here’s another one: TSA screeners, like the rest of us, have only limited time and attention span. The more these finite resources are devoted to “security theater” procedures that have little or no value, the less of it there is available to focus on genuine potential threats. Jonathan Adler recounts that the TSA failed to check some liquids that he brought on board on a recent flight. This doesn’t surprise me. Both anecdotal and systematic evidence show that TSA personnel often miss much more dangerous prohibited items such as knives and boxcutters, even in cases where the passenger in question was not deliberately trying to hide them. This is at least in part a result of the diversion of time and effort to security theater tasks, such as ensuring that every passenger takes off their shoes and the like. A screener who is checking up on people’s shoes can’t simultaneously focus on genuine dangers, or at least can’t do it as effectively as he could if his attention were undivided. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the TSA is giving such tradeoffs the attention they deserve or that its political masters in Congress and the administration are putting much pressure on the agency to do so. I suspect that perverse political incentives are at least a part of the reason for these failures.

On a tangentially related note, I thought I’d point out that Hollywood screenwriter David Steinberg, whose op ed on airport security Jonathan links, is a former clerk for Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith – the same judge that co-blogger Todd Zywicki and I clerked for (as did guest-blogger Hanah Volokh). No other blog gives you as much Smith clerk-authored material as the [...]

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Security or Silliness

Screenwriter (and recovering attorney) David H. Steinberg writes about his recent TSA experience flying home to the U.S. from Aruba.  Among other things, his family was frisked by a baggage handler and a flight attendant snatched the pillow from under his 2-year-old daughter one hour before descent.

A lunatic tries to blow up an airplane, so now my 2-year-old daughter can’t sleep on her pillow. If this is how we respond as a nation to terror threats, then maybe the terrorists really are winning. . . .

I get that the threat of terrorism is real. But if these hastily thrown-together rules are how we respond to new threats, then something is seriously wrong with us (or at least the TSA). If two X-rays, a bomb-sniffing dog, a frisk and a bag search can’t detect the next terror attack, then how is turning off the DVD player an hour early and grabbing pillows from sleeping children going to help? Keep in mind that the new rules only apply to the last hour of the flight (presumably because Friday’s particular lunatic decided to set off his bomb only on descent). Won’t the no-pillow policy just cause Al Qaeda to issue orders to detonate at T minus 1:01?

I flew domestically with my 2-year-old on December 30, and did not have a confidence-inducing security experience either.  We alerted the TSA screeners that we had juice bottles in the diaper bag, and removed them for separate screening (as we’ve been instructed to do on all of our trips with her in the last several months).  Yet after the bottles were x-rayed, noone came to test the liquid (as is usually done these days).  Is this part of the new TSA randomness that is supposed to keep would-be terrorists off guard?  Nor, for that [...]

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Why is it More Wrong to Attack a Person’s Religion than their Secular Moral or Political Views?

Ireland has recently enacted a law banning “blasphemy,” which has in turn attracted plenty of justified criticism:

Secular campaigners in the Irish Republic defied a strict new blasphemy law which came into force today by publishing a series of anti-religious quotations online and promising to fight the legislation in court.

The new law, which was passed in July, means that blasphemy in Ireland is now a crime punishable with a fine of up to €25,000 (£22,000).

It defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted”….

But Atheist Ireland, a group that claims to represent the rights of atheists, responded to the new law by publishing 25 anti-religious quotations on its website, from figures including Richard Dawkins, Björk, Frank Zappa and the former Observer editor and Irish ex-minister Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Michael Nugent, the group’s chair, said that it would challenge the law through the courts if it were charged with blasphemy.

Nugent said: “This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentives religious outrage, and because Islamic states led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.

There are many strong objections to the new Irish law, including the ones noted by the Atheist Ireland leader quoted above. I want to criticize the implicit assumption that it is somehow more justifiable to forbid criticism of religion than of secular political or moral views. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I [...]

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Three Approaches to Defending Liberty

A standard argument for government regulation or prohibition of private sector activities runs as follows: Individuals or businesses are doing something harmful and/or immoral. Therefore, the government must step in and ban it, or at least regulate to restrict it. A standard libertarian response (also sometimes used by liberals) is that, in a free society, people often have a “right to do wrong.” Maybe it’s wrong to engage in racist speech. But the government should not enact hate speech laws because even evil racists have a right to self-expression. My GMU colleague Bryan Caplan points out that this is often not the only or the best strategy for defending liberty:

Libertarians often highlight “the right to do wrong.” We are often morally obliged to tolerate the wicked and foolish behavior of others….

Fruitful as this insight is, however, it is often superfluous. If a law forbids actions that are good, or persecutes beliefs that are true, critics might as well start attacking the law by defending the merit of the violations. If the law persecutes creationists, it makes sense to appeal to freedom of belief. If the law persecutes evolutionists, on the other hand, it makes more sense to make the alibertarian argument that evolution is true.

Lately I’ve been reading the classic arguments in favor of regulation of reproductive technology. They usually take the rights-based position as their main foil. They’ll propose a ban on human cloning for the greater good, and libertarians will object, “You’re violating human rights.” On reflection, though, defenders of reproductive laissez-faire can do a lot better. Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and yes, cloning deserve an affirmative defense. Here’s an outline:

1. Creating new human life is almost always good.

2. Voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial for the participants.

3. Third parties

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Economists as Cheapskates? Law Professors as Conference Seekers of Golf and Surfing?

The Wall Street Journal has an entertaining article on the front page (Justin Lahart, Jan. 2, 2010), recounting tales of economists as hard bargainers and, well, cheapskates.  The article opens noting that the annual professional meetings occur the week after New Year, when hotel costs are generally low, and this year are taking place in Atlanta:

Academic economists gather in Atlanta this weekend for their annual meetings, always held the first weekend after New Year’s Day. That’s not only because it coincides with holidays at most universities. A post-holiday lull in business travel also puts hotel rates near the lowest point of the year.

Economists are often cheapskates.

The economists make cities bid against each other to hold their convention, and don’t care so much about beaches, golf courses or other frills. It’s like buying a car, explains the American Economic Association’s secretary-treasurer, John Siegfried, an economist at Vanderbilt University.

The rest of the article has entertaining stories of people like Keynes and Milton Friedman.  But let me stick with professional conferences.  We law professors are also holding professional conventions this week, as are many other academic groups, such as the MLA.  Price is part of the timing; so is, as the article notes, the general agreement to schedule academic calendars across the country’s institutions in order to hold the professional meetings before classes resume.

Update: I didn’t realize that this economics conference is also a job market and not just professional confab – definitely changes the picture.  Here is an interesting comment, pulled up from below:

As someone pretty close to the economics AEA meetings, I think the article misses the point about these meetings: they aren’t in fancy places because a huge swath of attendees are graduate students doing job market interviews. These students basically have

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Less Electricity, More Accidents

Many jurisdictions have begun installing LED traffic lights.  LEDs use less electricity, require less maintenance, and last longer than conventional bulbs.  But as the NYT reports, there’s also a catch for colder parts of the country.  LEDs generate less heat, and are more prone to collecting ice and snow, which can block the signal.  According to some other reports, this has led to numerous accidents and at least one death.  Some transportation officials believe the problem is easily manageable by having workers go out and manually remove the snow and ice, but reduces the cost-savings from switching to LEDs. [...]

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Welcome (Back) Jan Crawford

Jan Crawford (fka Jan Crawford Greenburg), author of Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court, has returned to the legal blogosphere with “Crossroads,” a new legal blog at Crawford left ABC News several months ago to join CBS News as their new Chief Legal Correspondent, but could not start with CBS until now because of a non-compete agreement in the old contract.

Her first post, “Auld Lang Syne,” went up today.  It discusses the new gig at CBS, her recent jury duty experience, and other changes in her life.  Given her past work — at the NewsHour, ABCNews, the (short-lived) Legalities blog and Supreme Conflict — I am much looking forward to her new blog.  Welcome back, Jan! [...]

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From Date to Mate

That’s the name of a mock reality show available online on Shalom TV.  It’s about four single Jewish twenty-somethings in Manhattan who have agreed to have their online dating life followed by t.v. cameras for eight months.  I’ve watched the first two episodes, and two things strike me.  First, because Shalom TV is aimed at a Jewish audience, it doesn’t have the constraint that seems to require all mainstream Jewish t.v. characters to only be “background” culturally Jewish (e.g., Seinfeld), and to have non-Jewish partners (e.g., Paul Reiser on Mad About You) .  Second, despite the fact that it’s clearly a low-budget show, the writing is very good.  In particular, it has the most realistic first-date dialogue, with all its awkwardness and potential, I’ve ever seen.

UPDATE: I was under the impression that all of the dialogue was scripted, but according to one of the actor’s blog, some of it is improvised, which perhaps explains its realism. [...]

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Jim Manzi, ‘Keeping America’s Edge’

I am going into isolation for a bit to rewrite the last chapter in my UN book, “Returning to Earth: When and How the United States Should Engage, and Not Engage, with the United Nations” – a chapter on the end of the human rights era at the UN.  But I wanted to wish everyone a happy new year.  And thank people for the excellent comments on cost-benefit analysis and the “line in the sand” question – please keep any comments coming in, particularly as relevant to the issue of how CBA deals, or does not deal, with deliberately arbitrary lines, in a form of analysis arising out of marginal incrementalism.   (I am less interested in debates over particular issues to which CBA might be applied; I’m trying to understand it as a conceptual form and, if you like, something of its intellectual history and pedigree.)  And, finally, to commend to you this essay by Jim Manzi, “Keeping America’s Edge,” at National Affairs journal – curious to return and see what people thought of it. [...]

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The Year in Robotics 2009

Happy new year to everyone!  H/T Instapundit, to this excellent story with many useful links by Kristina Grifantini, Tuesday, December 29, 2009, on various advances in robotics during 2009, from MIT’s Technology Review:

In the past year, researchers have developed new robots to tackle a variety of tasks: helping with medical rehabilitation, aiding military maneuvers, mimicking social skills, and grasping the unknown …  During the past 12 months, robots got better at grasping, smiling, and avoiding angry humans.

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Zywicki on the “Only Good Movies Blog”:

The folks at the “Only Good Movies Blog” have invited me to participate in their “Movies and the Masses” feature, where they ask “random” people to answer some movie questions.  My answers are here.

Reviewing my answers, one thing is clear: I don’t think that anyone will ever accuse me of being a film snob. [...]

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