In blog news...

TK is having its first Super Excellent TK Giveaway Extravaganza, which needs eight more entrants for me to win my damn gift card.

Also, though he has so rudely refused to notify me directly, Matt has launched Mutually Assured Destruction. I plug him less than enthusiastically, until he says sorry.


Putting two and two together

Saturday: President Hamid Karzai condemns U.S. prisoner abuse and demands Afghanistan take custody of Afghan prisoners.

Sunday: Bush administration publicizes internal memo criticizing Karzai for failing to crackdown on opium production.

Placing the audacity of the administration's strenuous efforts to defend and conceal torture aside, the broader point is clear. If we're actually going to support independent, democratically-elected leaders in the Muslim world, we might have to let them (gasp) criticize us.


Whose Monument?

I wish Trump wasn't Trump and this idea had a more credible big name behind it, because it makes perfect sense.

If the purpose of rebuilding is to show deference to the victims, defiance to the perpetrators, and show that life moves on, why not essentially rebuild the original towers along with a memorial?

Building any of the jagged, post-modern monstrosities that have been proposed, especially Daniel Libeskind's, is not a monument to the victims and the resilient spirit of New York. Instead, it is a monument to its morbid, egomaniacal designer.


What if I want to write in the margins?

The NYT today draws attention to library collections' transition from paper to digital. The article mostly focuses on internet scholarship's potential to free up floor space, especially since many undergraduate libraries are duplicate collections of superior graduate facilities, unlike here at NYU where the behemoth Bobst serves all.

While the piece doesn't seem to be intended as a full feature on the topic, it should have at least raised some of the potential pitfalls that internet scholarship, in its present state, poses to scholarship in general. (There is a very interesting piece on this by David Bell in the May 2 New Republic.)

Of course, internet scholarship has tremendous potential to democratize learning, eliminating the cost of printing, shipping, and storing books and making the finest collections on the planet available to anyone with an internet connection. However, at the present, this seems to be confined to the university realm. Publishers, uncomfortable with a new medium as entrenched interests often are, are wary of publishing e-books, and the result is a very low selection of titles available online outside of the Academy.

Also, there is the actual physical process of reading from a computer. This isn't a concern based in the romantic notion of cracking open a dusty calf-bound volume, but from a simple fear that internet scholarship will make us all bad readers.

Most obviously, there is the potential for eyestrain, which would serve as a physical deterrent to prolonged reading. Some companies are experimenting with "electronic ink," screens that display text with microcapsules manipulated by an electronic field, rather than with the projection of an internal light source. Still, electronic reading devices released to date have been clumsy, expensive, and just not realistic enough.

Finally and most importantly, internet scholarship has the potential to reduce the overall quality of study, because it's just too easy to cheat. Instead of reading an entire book or chapter to get a feel for the author's style and the context of the book, eager researchers can simply search the text for the information they need based on certain words or phrases.

I'm not against the expansion of internet scholarship, but we shouldn't put the cart in front of the horse. Until hardware technology has caught up with internet technology and until we can be assured that e-books will be treated like any other, we should proceed with caution, with an ethos of quality over quantity.


What an ass.

I mean, seriously.


Unintelligent Design

There are two pieces on the "cover" of Slate today on the battle over earth and life science curriculum in Kansas, and how that conflict is showing how Intelligent Design (ID) is taking creationism's place as the primary opposition to evolution.

As William Saletan outlines, ID is the lastest installment along the ironic "evolution" of creationism. First, creationism was the status quo that sought to stave off evolution. Then, creationists sought plurality: creationism alongside evolution in textbooks. Now, there is ID: a theory stating that the complexity of the earth and its life is the work of a vaguely defined "master designer," which could be a deity, a natural process, or organisms themselves.

ID proponents base their argument on gaps in the evolutionist record of earth and life history, but break from the literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 and some also support a few of evolutionists' broader claims, such as the age of the earth and even microevolution: the formation of new species through genetic mutation and natural selection.

ID, as a foe of evolution, is preferable to creationism in that it is actually based on scientific inquisition, and also avoids creationists' wilder claims, such as the earth is 6,000-some years old, fossils do not take a long time to form, the Grand Canyon was formed in hours or days, and dinosaurs co-existed with man. ID seeks to fill in what is left by evolution, and evolution, technically and perpetually a theory, is not sacrosanct, as other well-founded scientific theories have turned out to be entirely wrong (though evolution is unlikely to find this fate).

However, while there is nothing wrong with ID in form, there are serious flaws in its reasoning that for some reason go entirely unquestioned in its press coverage, even in opinion pages. The flaw lies in its central assumption that the complexity of life and the earth is evidence for some form of design: that life and earth forms and processes are far too elaborate and well-functioning to be arrived at by chance.

But aren't the complexities and detailed systems of life and the earth evidence for the opposite? What designer would have thought to put the little hairs in my nose to warm the air and catch debris? What designer would have thought of the shapes and colors of the Valley of Fire? It seems, to me at least, that the complexities of nature are evidence not of a designer, but of billions of years and countless incremental changes and trial-and-error.

UPDATE: Mikey briefly posts pro-ID. I hope he doesn't take my "Unintelligent Design" epigram personally.


Just give up

John Tierney continues to flail in defense of privatization today, backpedaling somewhat on his Chilean pension piece, but continuing to propagate Social Security misconceptions and silly anti-government rhetoric across the opinion page of the paper of record.

Today's fallacy is the notion is something he's hinted at before, but is now saying outright: that payroll tax cannot be trusted in the hands of Congress. Tierney claims that private savings accounts are preferable because retirees can see the account balance with their own two eyes, as opposed to sending it to the Treasury.

He envisions Congress being unable to make the tax increases or budget cuts necessary to save Social Security as is because of the political risk involved, so it's either go to private accounts or Social Security perishes. First of all, this view is entirely ahistorical. At several points in the past, Congress has done exactly what Tierney is saying it would never do. Furthermore, Tierney's attitude is right in keeping with privatization advocates' denial or ignorance of the wild popularity of Social Security. No matter the political risk of making slightly painful adjustments to the Social Security system, this pales in comparison to the political hara-kiri of allowing Social Security to go underfunded and expire, or even be cut at all. I'm trying to write the last undergrad paper of my life so I'll make it short: not gonna happen, and Tierney needs to stick to the fluff that he writes best.


I never thought I'd miss William Safire

After writing a few non-political pieces, new NYT columnist John Tierney has finally decided to end his honeymoon and weigh in with a pair of lousy pieces on social security privatization.

The first one was bad enough, reducing the complexities of the social security debate to an anecdote, and a foreign one at that. Tierney chose to disregard all of the political, ideological, and fiscal hurdles to privatization in favor of drooling over the pension of a Chilean economist. At least David Brooks will look at an entire survey before he makes his sweeping generalizations.

Today's piece unblushingly repeats just about every discredited assumption made in the pro-privatization camp. First, he takes it for granted that it will "shore up the system," though the riddle of how taking money out of the system improves its finances is yet to be solved. Even President Bush speaks of private accounts and solvency as separate issues.

Next he makes the statement that "most workers now pay more to Social Security than to the I.R.S." Discerning the economic truth of this I will leave to Neil, but I'd like to point out the political fallacy here. Pro-privatizers like to make statements about what workers "pay" to Social Security as if it is like the money you pay for your rent or a ham sandwich, as if it is money you are not getting back in some way. It fits with the characterization of tax cuts as "giving back your money" or as President Bush has said with trademark pithy: "It's your money. You paid for it." Payroll tax, like any other tax, is payment for a service. The government isn't taking your money and hopping the bus to Atlantic City.

Next, Tierney acknowledges Social Security's tremendous anti-poverty effects, but qualifies: "As a poverty-fighting program, Social Security is woefully inefficient because most of the money goes to people who aren't poor." He's right, but this "inefficiency" is what makes Social Security an effective anti-poverty program, because if it wasn't so inefficient, it would have been abolished by now. Anti-poverty programs, i.e. welfare in the form of AFDC, that target the poor raise issues of deservingness that make them tremendously unpopular and lead to their demise.

Finally, Tierney tries to assuage critics' fears that without the safety net of Social Security, many individuals could be left with an unsatisfactory pension. He says that the Cato Institute and Congressional Republicans have been talking about a measure to subsidize elderly up to the poverty line if their pension does not meet it.

I have not seen any numbers on such a proposal, but I would say that whether it is a good idea depends on the cause of these pensions running low. At a time when markets are generally kind and the only cause of lackluster pensions is bad market choices or personal injury, the financial obligation to such a safety net would be low. However, in times of market downturn, there may be more retirees with paltry pensions than there is government ability to pay for them. Therefore, this could be increasing Social Security's financial burden, not to mention such direct payments, specifically to the poorest, again raise the issues of deservingness that would put Social Security's very existence in peril. Hmm, why would the Cato Institute and Congressional Republicans be insensitive to such a concern?

I'm glad we're having this Social Security debate in this country. It is a vital program, and any ideas to improve it should be on the table, and though privatization is a bad idea, most of those promoting it mean well. Also, the debate raises issues concerning the balance of personal, community, and government responsibility that need to be discussed as we move from the industrial to the information age. Such a great discussion should not be about winning and losing, so when pro-privatization advocates reiterate their claims in the face of facts to the contrary, it feels more like combat than conversation, and Tierney, in a new place of influence as a NYT columnist, is doing a disservice.


Benedict XVI

I return from extended blogger hiatus to comment on the ascension of Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy as Benedict XVI. There seems to be a lot of disappointment in the blogosphere, among those who would have preferred a Third World figure such as Cardinal Arinze or a moderate such as Cardinal Tettamanzi.

First there is the matter of whether the pope should have come from the Third World, where Catholicism has had recent growth. In terms of where the pope should come from, there were too many factors to be considered to give particular weight to any one place. The church's issues are different all over the world: general decline of religiosity in Europe, diminishment of the priesthood in the US, competition with Protestant evangelicals in South America, and competition and conflict with Islam as it too expands in Africa. Therefore, the geo-politics of the papacy became irrelevant through the variety of challenges faced by what is increasingly a global religion.

The second, more contentious matter is fear of Benedict's social conservatism, concerning abortion rights, gay rights, and the prospect of women in the priesthood. In spite of being a supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, I cannot possibly fault Benedict, or any church figure, for taking these stands. To those taking umbrage, I would reiterate that this is, after all, the Catholic Church, and I don't think I'm too rigid in my thinking to say social reform is not to be expected from it. The Church's stances on abortion, homosexuality, and female clergy are not anachronistic bogeys to be shedded with the passage of time, but rather logical outgrowths from initial faith in creationism and the divinity of Christ.

I see the Church's conservatism on social issues as a positive, in spite of its dischord with my personal beliefs. First of all, to pursue social reform through the Church rather than the government would be to have tacitly given up the larger philosophical notion that we should not be making social policy according to the dictates of any religious faith and instead with respect to individual choice, plurality, and freedom. Secondly, we should take comfort in Church dogma's persistence as an intellectual counterweight to the doctrines of social liberalism. Just as the country would be worse off if the Republican Party collapsed tomorrow, so might the world be without the continuity of the Church.

The final word on the election of Benedict XVI is that we should simply leave it as a matter of trust. He was not elected by the Holy Spirit: Innocent III and Alexander VI can attest to that. However, he was chosen by 117 men who have devoted their lives to the faith and works of Catholicism. The process isn't perfect, as nothing human is, but that does not mean the decision is anyone else's to make but theirs.


My bad, others' good

I'm thoroughly aware of my lack of posting recently. It's not a conscious decision, just a combination of being pressed for time, not too into anything in the news right now, and expending blogging energies on the Washington Square News Opinion Blog, which is very interesting, but lacking in outside input (hint hint).

Also, some more love on the posts might help me write more. Pieces ranging from nuggets like So we meet again, Dr. Hegel and To Demagogue to epics like 2005 and Catching Up have gone uncommented. Hardly an incentive, my blogger friends. Don't you know how sensitive I am?

Meanwhile, others are picking up my slack in the blogosphere. Shankar Gupta's blog/job application TK is up and running. Noam Besdin, the man who so graciously made me an honorary Jew, is blogging abroad as ItaliaNoam, much on the model of Ben's Prague blog, which is still a blog, though not from Prague.

If only Matt Buchanan's blog was done yet, I could fold it into this plug, but his loss...


The Gates

I got a look at The Gates today, not as a trip in itself, but I had to go from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side and figured I'd walk. I was mostly motivated by the prospect of years from now someone saying: "The Gates was in Central Park and you never went to see it!?"

My overall statement on The Gates is that I can't judge it because the whole ordeal has become overbearingly self-aware. I understand the point of bringing color to a place that is brown and bringing novelty to a place that has been demure for 150 years. However, hardly being able to enter at 79th Street due to throngs of people and from then on having every post adorned with a tourist wearing orange and posing for a photo does not, for me at least, signal magic and wonderment.

I suppose The Gates never stood a chance with me. A few weeks of process stories about the logistics of the operation deadened any impact it could have on the imagination. Perhaps if it had been set up overnight without any notice and I just encountered it at dawn before anyone else, it would be worthwhile. Meanwhile, in the real world, the attendants wearing smocks emblazoned in orange with "The Gates" and the dates of the installation are just too much.


So we meet again, Dr. Hegel

Iraqi elections have gone better than expected, and no one is more glad than I am. First of all, there is my general girlie-man liberal aversion to widespread death and destruction (of which there was some, but drastically less than the worst-case scenario). Second, I've written about the validity of democracy-spreading and the universal quality of democracy here, here, and in my flawed, but, most importantly, completed honors thesis.

However, the downside of yesterday's success is that it will serve as a springboard for the administration to suggest that everything before this point has been rendered moot: minor and forgivable bumps on the road within a master unfolding of Iraqi democracy. This is the pinnacle of the Bush administration's aversion to accountability. No matter how high turnout was and how low violence was, it does not absolve doctored WMD claims, outright lies concerning the relationship of Saddam Hussein and al Qaida, disastrous post-war planning, or torture.

And to think Hegelianism had finally died with the Soviets, who argued that victory over the Nazis and the ultimate goals of communist utopia justified totalitarian excess. Instead, Hegel's "slaughterbench of history" is alive and well.


To Demagogue

TNR's Noam Scheiber considers the argument that Democrats should not try to debunk the Bush White House's terribly familiar attempt to characterize Social Security as facing an immediate (rather than simply impending) crisis, for fear of seeming married to the status quo and without a positive agenda. His conclusion is that it is not desirable but it is necessary, considering the undemocratic tactics of the administration.

However, the question of whether to demagogue is moot without a counter-proposal. Without a Democratic alternative, all you're choosing between is whether to let privatization go by unopposed, or attack it without affect, since the lack of a counter-proposal makes privatization seem like it's the only option. Instead, someone in the party needs to take the lead and propose modest changes that would have large affects, such as slight raises in the salary cap and retirement age that would extend Social Security's solvency for a lifetime. They'll involve a small amount of pain, but the political benefit of preserving the character of a popular system could outweigh the political risk of narrowing it if the move is sold well, and particularly if the changes are set to go into effect in the future, they'll essentially go unnoticed.


An Expanding Blogosphere

Taylor Yu, the self-proclaimed "Democratic wing of the Republican Party," has launched his long-overdue blog, Classicaliberalconservative, and he's off and running (to be the first Asian-American president). Speaking of long-overdue blogs, keep an eye out for Matt Buchanan's all-purpose blog, Mutual Assured Destruction, coming soon. Matt's too tech-savvy to settle for some lame-ass Blogger.com template, unlike me, who inadvertantly chose the same template as NYU Students for Life (slaps head), so he's going all-custom.

And all the while, Benjamin Harrison and Co. over at Lefterer have been blogging like the pros, in spite of my neglect to plug them.