01 December 2010

Academia: Budget Cuts

Stephen Kershnar
The Humanities and the Budget Axe: No Immunity
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 29, 2010

The morning after the state spent like a drunken sailor is beginning to dawn. In the State University of New York (SUNY) system, academic departments are being cut. Some of these cuts raise the issue of whether the state should go after humanities programs. While the boundaries are not always clear, the following are sometimes grouped as humanities: classics, English, history, languages, philosophy, and the arts (for example, theater, music, and painting). As with many spending issues, the issue here is priorities, so the arguments are really about how much the state should spend on humanities rather than on other things. Full disclosure: I’m a humanities professor at a state college.

With the exception of the public parts of Cornell University, SUNY-Geneseo has the smartest students in the SUNY system. Geneseo is cutting three academic programs: computer science, communicative disorders and sciences, and studio art as part of its effort to close a $7.2 million deficit. SUNY-New Paltz (2nd smartest students among SUNY-Colleges) is cutting its nursing program as part of a $6 million deficit-reduction plan. For similar reasons, SUNY-Albany is cutting its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater departments. SUNY-Fredonia, which has roughly the 6th smartest students among SUNY colleges, is also considering cuts.

There are three main arguments against states cutting or eliminating humanities programs. First, humanities programs make society better off. Second, they pay for themselves and, in fact, subsidize other fields. Third, they are part of a university’s core mission. Let us consider them in turn.

The first argument is that the humanities teach the best of what has been thought and said and in so doing, make society better off. The idea is that having students learn about Plato, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Locke, and Mozart makes the students’ lives go better and benefits society as a whole. Public intellectual and former Duke University professor Stanley Fish points out that the general education requirements at most universities, including Albany, are satisfied by many courses in a diverse array of disciplines. As a result, students are not required to study these intellectual giants and many never do. This is true even at elite universities, such as Yale, Brown, Cornell, Amherst, and Berkeley. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently faulted them for not requiring courses in specific fields (for example, math and history), let alone particular courses.

As far as I can tell, there is not much empirical evidence that reading and discussing these intellectual giants makes individuals’ lives go better or improves society. Perhaps there is a study showing this, but I haven’t found it. In one literature summary by Oxford University psychologist Michael Argyle, greater education is correlated with greater happiness, but he notes that is mainly because it affects income and occupational status. On some accounts, happiness is not the only factor related to how well someone’s life goes.

Even if thinking about the giants were to make people’s lives go better or improve society, we’d still need an argument that spending state money on it via college programs contributes more than other uses of the money. For example, it is unclear whether the money would be better spent on medical care for the poor, K-12 programs for the gifted, or more firefighters. Even if the state money were confined to higher education, it is unclear whether the money would be better spent reducing tuition increases, offering more and better classes in engineering, physics, and medicine, and so on. Perhaps it might even be spent on promoting some of these giants (for example, Shakespeare and Mozart) by subsidizing performances that are open to the public.

The second argument is that that humanities departments pay for themselves. University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) English professor Robert Watson cites various studies at UCLA, University of Washington, and University of Illinois that the humanities departments generate profits by taking in more in tuition money than they cost. University of California at Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield not only claims they make a profit, but that their profits subsidize more expensive fields, such as science, engineering, and medicine. Fish counters that this misunderstands the economics of higher education. He argues that no matter how popular humanities courses are, they still don’t cover their full costs, which is why they still need state subsidies, albeit less than some other fields. The success of this argument depends on which side is right. I don’t know the answer.

The third argument, which comes from Fish, argues that the essential purpose of a university includes teaching and researching in the humanities. Hence, if we value universities, we must value the humanities. This argument fails. One can imagine universities that do not offer courses or do research in the humanities. For example, were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to dump all of its humanities programs, it would still seem to be a university. Even if Fish were right about the essence of a university, it still doesn’t follow that the university should be located at each school rather than the system of schools. For example, were SUNY-Geneseo to lack studio art, SUNY-Brockport to lack philosophy, and SUNY-New Paltz to lack theater, the system as a whole might still be a university. In addition, students could choose colleges in part based on what they wanted to study, although not every college would offer every field or, perhaps, merely not a major in every field.

The positive argument for the state reducing or cutting humanities programs in tough financial times is that they contribute less to a state’s economic success than other majors. Graduates in many engineering fields, physics, and computer science average roughly $100,000 in mid-career pay. In contrast, various humanities field average considerably less: history and philosophy (roughly $73,000), drama and English (roughly, $68,000), and French and theater (roughly, $60,000). One problem with this argument is that other factors might explain the salary differences. At least one analysis indicates that science and engineering majors have a higher IQ than humanities majors.

Columbia University professor John McWhorter suggests that some of the money spent on humanities could be better spent on vocational tracks. One way to understand this is that the citizens of a state would get more economic benefit from young people with skills in plumbing and electrical equipment than in French and playing the bassoon.

None of this shows that the humanities programs should be cut or eliminated. What it does show is that in times of crushing taxes and crippling deficits, the arguments for privileging humanities programs over other parts of academia or the state budget are at best incomplete. The humanities are fun, rewarding, and important, but this is no reason to hide them from the budget axe.

17 November 2010

Free Speech versus Privacy: Online Sex Journals

Stephen Kershnar
Online Sex Autobiographies: Privacy versus Free Speech
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 15, 2010

An issue that has arisen and will become increasingly more important is whether Americans have the right to keep some information private. This issue arises when two freedoms, free speech and privacy, smash into each other.

The issue is nicely illustrated by a Duke University graduate, Karen Owen, who wrote a fake Senior Honors Thesis in May 2010, shortly after graduating. She sent it to three friends. In September 2010, a friend forwarded it to others and the thesis went viral. The thesis is entitled, “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.” Written in the form of a series of case studies, she sets out a rating system to evaluate men’s sexual performance and then assesses the performance of thirteen Duke athletes. The specific rating is based on a number of factors (for example, physical appearance, sexual talent and creativity, and enjoyable personality) that are nicely laid out. About half the men got bad ratings and a few got terrible ratings.

Owen is likely extremely bright. In addition to getting into Duke, which has roughly the same admission standards as the Ivy League, her thesis is clearly written, organized, and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.

The issue arises whether the men could sue her, especially those who got low grades. One person can sue another for the public disclosure of embarrassing private facts. According to Oklahoma State University professor Joey Senat, for the person suing to prevail, he must prove that the defendant publicized a non-newsworthy, private fact about him that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The fact must be so intimate that publication outrages the public’s sense of decency.

Courts have held that public figures have less of a right to privacy because information about them is a more legitimate public concern. The courts have held that a person need not intend to put himself into the public eye to be a public figure. Senat’s example comes from Sipple v. Chronicle Publishing Co. (Calif. App. Ct. 1984). In that case, a former Marine sergeant deflected a gun during an attempt to assassinate former President Gerald Ford. The sergeant became a public figure despite not intending to do so. When a publication stated that he was gay, which was true although his Midwest family didn’t know it, the court held that he was a public figure.

Owen could arguably defend herself by claiming that she did not publicly release the information, her friends did. She could also argue that the information would not be highly offensive to a reasonable person. After all, it’s hardly news that star athletes at big-time colleges hook up with groupies. Nor is it news that some get the job done well and some don’t. Owen might defend herself by claiming that the public release did not cause the men legally recognizable harm. She could even argue that the men were public figures. For example, the one who got the worst grade was a Canadian tennis star.

This case is not unique. There are a number of websites that allow people to anonymously reveal sexual details and make various harsh and raunchy observations. On college students, there was JuicyCampus and is now College ACB and Burnbook. Locally, Topix.net allows Fredonia and Dunkirk people to anonymously comment on which locals are promiscuous, business cheats, adulterers, wife-beaters, gay, animal-abusers, and so on. Because the people who write on the site are anonymous, they can be neither sued nor subject to social disapproval.

The notion of a right to privacy in this context is odd. A person doesn’t normally own information. For example, it is hard to imagine that the athletes could sue Owen were she to have given the same information to her priest, therapist, or gynecologist. They couldn’t sue her for defamation if she truthfully described the sex. In addition, were there a right to own information, or at least a right to prevent it from being publicized, it is hard to see why public figures wouldn’t also have it.

If the law is justified by its having good results, then there should be some empirical support for the claim that discouraging the release of this information is more important than preventing bad behavior by publicizing it. I am unaware of any such support. Even the boundary separating public and private concerns is murky. For example, consider the media’s widely publicizing the sex lives of an evangelical preacher (for example, Ted Haggard used meth and hired a male prostitute), a teacher (Mary Kay Letourneau had sex with a 13-year-old student), a car mechanic (Joey Buttafuoco had an affair with 16-year old Amy Fisher, who then shot his wife in the face), and a former pro athlete (for example, Tiki Barber carried on with the babysitter). It is hard to determine why these facts are a matter of public concern, especially given that similar facts about our neighbors are not. Many public figures never consented to expose their sex lives. Arguably, the public learns more about themselves by finding out what their neighbors are up to than what freakish celebrities have done lately.

A critic might respond that we restrict our liberties in other ways to protect privacy reasons and this is no different. For example, criminal voyeurism statutes protect people against being watched or filmed when they undress in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Laws against appropriation protect people from having their name or likenesses used in advertisements without their permission.

In addition, there is a sense that the schools and employers are prying into people’s personal lives in invasive ways. Both increasingly search people’s online sites (for example, Facebook), drug test employees and students, and have vague moral-turpitude clauses that can be and sometimes are applied with Church-Lady priggishness.

Still, protecting privacy by shutting down people’s autobiographical observations sacrifices one freedom for another and does not obviously favor the more important one. Hard-to-follow laws requiring people to guess at what is a public concern or what constitutes publicizing information worsen the situation. Also, it is hard not to laugh in the face of those who fret about the loss of privacy and then enthusiastically support the government hunt for those engaged in private behaviors like prostitution, pornography, drugs, online gambling, and so on.

04 November 2010

Voters Pound Democrats: The Wages of Irresponsibility

Stephen Kershnar
Why the Democrats Got Pounded
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 1, 2010

Assuming the projections hold up, yesterday voters pounded the Democrats. The polls show that the voters called them onto the carpet for three reasons: the economy is a mess, government spending is out of control, and political corruption is getting out of hand. The Democrats had it coming.

The first reason Democrats got pounded is that the economy is weak. When the childlike Democrats gained control of both sides of Congress in January 2007, unemployment was at 4.6% and the stock market (Dow Jones Industrial Average) was at roughly 12,600. Almost four years later, the former is at 9.6% and the latter at roughly 11,100. When inflation is taken into account, the stock market has dropped by roughly 15%. A fun thought experiment is to figure out how many years of retirement this cost you. To be fair, the Democrats had a lot of help from the Bush administration.

If anyone doubts the Bush administration loved big government, recall its signature accomplishments. Among them were more medical welfare (Medicare drug coverage), greater restrictions on free speech (McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill), more federal involvement in education (No Child Left Behind), pricey overseas wars (Iraq and Afghanistan wars), expanded government search powers (Patriot Act and related bills), and milquetoast tax cuts. Not exactly a Reagan-like legacy.

The second reason Democrats got pounded is that government involvement in our lives is expanding at breakneck speed. Consider spending. According to www.usgovernmentspending.com, the government in 2010 at all three levels now spends 44% of what is produced in this country (that is, 44% of the GDP). That means that for every $1.00 earned in this country, the government spends 44 cents of it. It now spends $41,219 per household (Heritage Foundation, 2008). Government at all three levels has been growing, but it has exploded (26% growth) over the last three years. This underestimates the role of government because the government controls the economy in part through vast tentacles of regulation. If the combined role of Obama Care and regulation exceeds 6% of the economy, and they likely will, then over half of the economy will be controlled by the government. This makes the economy as much socialist as market-based, despite the protests of effete news commentators.

Consider taxes. The upper middle class (top 25% or roughly $67,000, 2008 figure) pay a marginal rate that is over 40%. Consider a New York resident in this bracket. His marginal tax rate includes a federal income tax of 25-28%, an entitlement tax of 15.3% (Social Security tax 12.4% and Medicare tax 2.9%), and a state income tax rate is 6.85%. This marginal rate does not take into account deductions and credits, but it also doesn’t take into account property, sales, corporate, and sin taxes.

The U.S. has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world. Only Japan beats us and their economy has been in the doldrums for two decades. When state taxes are added, 24 states have rates higher than Japan. Corporations are just collections of taxpayers, so when corporations are taxed this simply means that taxpayers are further bled.

Even on the conservative estimate of the Tax Foundation, taxpayers work for the government from January 1 to April 9 (May 17 if you count deficit spending and you should). This underestimates the taxes on the middle class because the poor and working class (bottom 50% of taxpayers) don’t pay their fair share of the income tax (3% of income-tax revenue), let alone other major taxes. You worked all winter for Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. At least by the summer, if not the spring, you were working for yourself.

Democrats are irresponsible. In 2010, the government debt is approaching 100% of the economy. Note that 44% of the debt is foreign owned, so reneging on it will likely result in our credit being reduced if not cut off. Because the interest rate on it is roughly 8% (2008 figure), the problem is snowballing. The government ran roughly a 10% deficit in 2009 and will likely run another massive deficit in 2010. It plans on continuing to do so for the few years. The current Congress and President are like a lawyer with a coke problem. This lawyer makes $100,000 a year, owes $100,000 in credit-card debt, and is spending 10% more than he makes with no end in sight. We know how this story is going to end. The same is true if Barney Frank, Charley Rangel, and Brian Higgins were to stay in the majority.

The third reason Democrats got pounded is corruption. It played a smaller role than the above factors, but still mattered. Some voters remembered the illegal activities of scoundrels like Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA). The former allegedly failed to pay taxes, committed rent-control crimes, and failed to report income. The latter used her influence to help bail out a bank in which her husband held a sizable stake. Other voters revisited the tawdry kickbacks demanded by Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) in return for voting for Obama Care. Some voters likely considered the various sleazy benefits given to former Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Ted Stevens (R-AK). Both got favorable treatment or other benefits from people who worked for businesses they regulated. Deserving attention, but not getting it, are the special-interest payoffs that have characterized the careers of government profiteers Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and Michelle Obama. The Republicans were not much better when they were in power, but the Democrats pledged to clean up the sleaziness and then kicked it up a notch.

What is happening in this year’s election is voters have simply had enough. This election is in effect a referendum on Obama and the Democrats and the majority of voters are disgusted. Upon taking power the Republicans should do a few things. First, they should repeal Obama Care. Further socializing medicine (government accounted for about 50% of medical expenditures before the bill) is bad for health care and the economy and politically unpopular.

Second, they should cut Washington spending and stop propping up irresponsible states like New York and California. An across-the-board cut, perhaps 10% initially, would limit the ability of special interests to carve out various protections and reduce the caterwauling about any group receiving unfair treatment. This cut should include sharply reduced defense spending and spending on foreign affairs. The American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan should be ended and the large number of American troops overseas (for example, those in Germany, Japan, and South Korea) should be yanked back.

Third, the Bush tax cuts, all of them, should be retained and further cuts put in place. Making an American’s work more than a third of the year for others is not just inefficient, it’s immoral.

Fourth, investigate the various criminals in Congress. This might step on some toes. For example, in early 2010, all eight of the open House investigations involved members of the Congressional black caucus. If this caucus, or any other, is loaded up with criminals, they should be exposed. If Obama wants to veto some or all of the policy changes, let him do so. In 2012, voters will be more than glad to open up another can of whoop-ass.

20 October 2010

Fall '10 Election: Cuomo and Fake Christians

Stephen Kershnar
Fake Christians against Paladino
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 17, 2010

The recent furor over Carl Paladino’s comments on gays involves the usual stench of leftist hypocrisy. According to the Huffingtonpost.com, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino spoke before a group of orthodox Jewish leaders in Brooklyn. He promised to veto gay marriage legislation and noted that he didn’t march in this year’s gay pride parade. He denounced those who would hurt gays and said that he adopts a live-and-let-live approach. He then said the following, “I just think my children, and your children, will be much better off, and much more successful getting married and raising a family. And I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t.” The Jewish leaders then applauded. According to Newsday, Paladino had the following line in the prepared text, but left it out of his speech, “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual. that is not how God created us.”

Paladino’s opponent, Andrew Cuomo, supports gay marriage as did the two previous governors, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson. Patterson introduced legislation to legalize it. Given that Cuomo pledged to make gay marriage a priority, were he elected he would probably succeed in legalizing it.

Here is an argument for Carl Paladino’s position and probably one he would accept. (1) If Christianity is true, then what the Bible says is strong evidence of what is true. (2) The Bible says that homosexuality is wrong. (3) Hence, if Christianity is true, then there is strong evidence that homosexuality is wrong.

There is good reason to believe that Christianity is closely connected to the Bible. Christians generally hold that the Bible (Old and New Testaments) was written by humans who were divinely inspired and that it is either the word of God or good evidence for it. This can be seen both in Christian doctrine and practice. Different Christian groups (for example, Catholics and Protestants) and Jews differ as to which of the Biblical books are canonical. Also, the Bible provides evidence for many Christians concerning the divinity of Jesus, a doctrine that lies at the heart of Christianity.

The argument for the notion that the Bible says homosexuality rests on statements like the following.
• “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Leviticus 18:22.

The New Testament has similar sentiments.
• “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.” Romans 1:27.
• “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, … will inherit the kingdom of God.” Corinthians 1:9-10.
• “Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, … and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. Timothy 1:8-10.

Cuomo and Paladino are Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church asserts that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law and sinful. It claims that this is in part because such acts are not related to the reproduction and in part because they do not proceed from genuine affection and do they complete the participants. The Church considers homosexual desires to be disordered, but not sinful. It also condemns premarital sex, marital sodomy, contraception, pornography, and masturbation. One can see why Bill Clinton never joined it.

The Catholic Church is not alone. Other Christian branches that hold that homosexual acts are sinful include the Orthodox/Eastern Christian, Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, and Mormon. Other popular branches, Anglicanism and Presbyterianism, are torn on the issue.

One objection is that the Bible is a poor guide to morality. Consider the following.
• Pig Eating: “[Swine] shall be even an abomination of you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination.” Leviticus 11:7-8
• Money Lending: Anyone who engages in money-lending “he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.” Ezekiel 18:13.
• Slave Owning: “[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves … You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” Leviticus 25:44-46.

The objector claims that the Bible is no substitute for moral reasoning. However, if the Biblical injunction is repeated in several places, if most of the major branches of Christianity interpret it the same way, and if the early version used plain language, and I don’t know whether this last condition is met, then the Biblical injunction on homosexuality can be distinguished from the above passages.

A second objection is that we should separate religion and politics. Notre Dame philosopher Robert Audi argues that politicians should present sufficient secular reasons for their position, even if they have religious reasons for holding it. This is incorrect. If someone knows what is wrong because God has told him so, whether directly or indirectly, then it is irrational for him to ignore this when deciding what the state should do or what to teach his children. He also shouldn’t hide his thinking from the public.

A third objection is that Christianity and, probably also, Judaism are false and thus should be ignored. My guess is that this is what Cuomo and many of his supporters believe. It is dishonest to pretend that you are a Roman Catholic and then treat Catholic doctrine as a big joke. Were the reporters not in the tank for Cuomo, one would ask him why he considers himself a Catholic when he rejects Catholic doctrine on homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and divorce. Perhaps he could start a group entitled, “Catholics against Catholicism.”

Paladino also claims that children shouldn’t be taught that homosexuality is an equally valid lifestyle. His argument rested on its not being in the children’s interest. It is implausible, and in any case not supported by any evidence that I’m aware of, that a gay lifestyle is bad for people who have a homosexual orientation. However, there is a different reason to accept Paladino’s conclusion. Given that public schools are paid for by coercively obtained taxes and given that many parents are in effect forced to send their children to them, the schools should hesitate to ram down the children’s throats messages that violently clash with their family’s religious beliefs. There is no burning reason to do so here and the schools should therefore avoid the pro-gay propaganda. Such propaganda is what drew Paladino’s ire.

If Andrew Cuomo and other fakers want to heap scorn on the Catholic position, they should explain how their view is consistent with the Bible or their faith.

06 October 2010

On Being Grateful to Veterans

Stephen Kershnar
Gratitude and Veterans: Breaking the Faith
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 4, 2010

In the United States, it is an article of faith that citizens should be very grateful to veterans. Presidents regularly reaffirm this faith. On Veterans Day in 1993, President Bill Clinton said, “Today we gather to honor those who have rendered the highest service any American can offer to this nation: Those who have fought for our freedom and stood sentry over our security. … [T]oday we join as one people to appreciate a debt we can never fully repay.” Other recent Presidents have all said similar things.

There are two federal holidays in the United States dedicated to veterans or a portion of them. Veterans Day, which occurs on November 11th of every year, honors military veterans. Memorial Day, which occurs on the last Monday of May, honors U.S. soldiers who died while in military service. Both are federal holidays. There are many federal, state, and local statues and memorials that honor veterans or some portion of them. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is a high profile instance. In ordinary English, people work as farmers or garbage men, but serve in the military.

In contrast to U.S. citizens’ attitude toward veterans, they are not very grateful to farmers, sanitation workers, intellectuals, and so on. These groups get no holidays and there are far fewer public expressions of gratitude toward them. I assume this general lack of gratitude is correct.

Despite this disparate treatment, farmers did as much historically for Americans as did the military. Specifically, their food added as much to our well-being as did the military’s protection. To see this, consider the conditions Americans would be in if no one grew food and no one worked as a soldier. They would be in bad shape in both cases, but probably worse in the former. A similar thing is true of intellectuals. In forming the system that created and protected liberty in Great Britain and the United States, intellectuals played a vital role.

If we look at individual veterans rather than veterans as a group, leaving aside commanders such as General Patton, we can see that no one veteran contributed that much to a war effort and, in any case, many veterans were adequately paid for their work. Consider contribution. That no one veteran contributed that much to the war effort can be seen in that in most cases, one soldier’s presence did not turn the tide of a battle, let alone the war. In addition, had a particular man not joined the military, it is likely that someone else would have occupied his position. Next consider compensation. For example, consider the salaries of officers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to military analyst Rod Powers, when a person comes into the military as a commissioned officer, an O-1, he makes an average starting salary of $45,969.67. A seasoned officer, for example, an O-4 with 10 years of experience, takes home an average of $94,313.54. This is not bad pay, even when we take into account the officers’ skills. Enlisted men also get paid moderately well, again controlling for skills.

One objection is that combat veterans took great risks in fighting overseas. As the recent flap in Dunkirk illustrates, not all veterans saw combat. Different jobs have different costs and benefits. A person is free to take a job or not take it. If he takes it, particularly if he does so because he likes the cost-benefit package, then so long as he is paid and faces predictable costs and risks, he has no business demanding gratitude. Nor does he merit it.

To see this point, compare the fatality rate of three jobs: member of the military, logger, and fisherman. At the height of the U.S. military insurgency in Iraq, which occurred in 2006, American Thinker writer Steve Gilbert reports that the fatality rate was .13%. Gilbert reports that this is roughly the same rate it has been for the last 25 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are the fatality rates/average salaries for other professions in 2008: fisherman (0.13%) and logger (0.12%). The salaries of fishermen and loggers are lower than that of the military and the fatality-risk roughly the same. Fishermen and loggers miss out on some hardships (for example, they might spend less time away from their families), but they also miss out on some benefits (for example, they might not form the same lasting friendships or take as much pride in what they do). The attractiveness of various cost-benefit packages varies from person to person. If someone chooses one package (for example, a military package) over others (for example, a logger package) knowing the costs and risks, it is hard to see why we should be grateful to him. It is also hard to see why he serves others rather than merely working for them.

A second objector might concede that perhaps we shouldn’t be grateful to veterans or combat veterans, but we should be grateful to veterans who were injured or killed. To see why this is mistaken, consider people who win a lottery. The lottery is fair if it was reasonable to both parties when the ticket was purchased. If it was reasonable to both, then neither party need be grateful to the other. Next consider a reverse lottery. Here players get a good sum of money in return for taking a small risk of death or severe injury (perhaps, they will have to donate an organ). Again, if reasonable, no gratitude is owed. Military service is like a reverse lottery. If the contract when members signed up was reasonable for them and the citizens who hired them, then neither need be grateful.

A third objector might claim that my discussion misses the issue because many young men were made to fight via the draft and hence we should be grateful to them. Let us assume that draftees were made to fight against their will. If this is correct, then we should not be grateful to them any more than we should be grateful to slaves. Neither was motivated by altruism. A former slave owner probably should be sorry for what she did to the slave and should compensate him, but given that the slave did not act out of concern for the owner’s well-being, she should not be grateful.

I think this essay contains a positive message for people considering joining the military or staying in it: It is important that your life go well. Hence, other things being equal, you should join the military or stay in it only if you like the job, people, or values that comprise it. Viewing your life in the military as a service or a sacrifice is not only a mistake, but also prevents you from focusing on what should guide your decisions.

22 September 2010

Irresponsible Political Hack: Brian Higgins

Stephen Kershnar
Brian Higgins: Western New York’s Big Spender
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 12, 2010

Many people wonder how our federal government could have become so irresponsible. Western New Yorkers need not look elsewhere to discover the answer. The state’s 27th Congressional District includes two-thirds of Buffalo, most of the city’s Eastern and Southern suburbs, and all of Chautauqua County. It’s a district that has been gerrymandered for political purposes. This district has repeatedly elected Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY). Higgins is a great example of why Americans are disgusted with Congress. One recent NBC/Wall Street Journal August survey found that only 21% approve of the job Congress is doing. The 21% must have been on drugs.

How bad is Higgins? In 2009, Higgins received an F from the National Taxpayers Union (NTU). This grade doesn’t do justice to his assault of the taxpayers. In 2009, the NTU gave him a grade of 2 (out of 100). Just imagine what you would think if your child or students earned that grade. He consistently soaked the taxpayer more than his Democratic colleagues have done over the last five years do and that’s not easy. Despite his voting pattern, he faced minimal Republican opposition in 2006 and 2008 and received more than 70% of the vote in both elections.

Not only does he view the taxpayer as a chicken, fat and ready for the plucking, he is also an unimaginative lockstep Democrat. According to The Washington Post Votes Database, he voted with a majority of his Democratic colleagues 99.1% of the time during the current Congress. This, of course, does not include the roughly one out of twenty votes that he missed.

It is worth considering some of the bills he supported. Higgins voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2008. The program was sold as a plan for the government to spend up to $700 billion in order buy toxic assets. These are illiquid, difficult-to-value assets from banks and other financial institutions. The program mysteriously transformed into a program that allowed the government to own portions of banks and other major industries. This involved giving $40 billion to deserving institutions as Citigroup, Bank of America, and AIG (American International Group). The evidence that this was necessary to avoid a financial meltdown is weak at best. In contrast, it is clear that it was sold to the American public under false pretenses. In Higgins’ defense, he joined economic heavyweights as Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in voting for this monstrosity.

Some of the TARP money was used to nationalize GM. The U.S. government got 61% of it and GM’s union got 17.5% ownership stake. Chrysler also got $11 billion. How any of this related to toxic assets or financial institutions is still a mystery.

Higgins and the Democrats then became spending legends. Not satisfied with TARP, they passed the Stimulus Bill in February 2009. It allowed the government to spend $787 billion for a Christmas tree of benefits for various groups, including extending unemployment benefits and massive handouts to the states. Apparently, these generous souls were horrified at the idea of cutting taxes, but the idea of shoveling money at state governments just felt right. At the time the bill was passed unemployment was 8.2%. It is now 9.6%. Even the Congressional Budget Office predicted that in the long run the massive spending bill would be a drag on the economy. Of course this money went on the federal credit card since the country was already running a deficit. This past August, Higgins and company spent another $26 billion in welfare to state governments so that they could continue their irresponsible spending on education and Medicaid. The bill was a thinly disguised payoff to prevent layoffs to key Democrat constituencies.

Higgins further distinguished himself by voting for such abominations as Obama Care (the attempt to further socialize medicine) and cap and trade (a series of massive new energy taxes and regulations). After the election one can bank on Higgins joining Democrats when they try to give amnesty to illegal aliens and raise taxes on the rich, small businesses, inheritors, and other chickens ready for plucking.

Higgins won a tight election in 2004. However, given the spread of his recent victories, it appears that he is now the 27th District’s Congressman for life. Why does he keep getting elected?

One reason is that Buffalo is a left-wing city. According to Wikipedia.com, even when Jack Quinn was the 27th District’s Representative, it was the most Democratic district in the country to be represented by a Republican. Also, Buffalo is one of the poorest cities (roughly 29% of its people are below the poverty level) and poor cities do not vote for Republicans. Buffalo hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1954. This is a common pattern among the poorest cities. If you consider other poor cities, such as Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, none of these cities has elected a Republican mayor in years. Two have not elected one in a couple of decades (Cincinnati and Cleveland) and the rest haven’t elected one in nearly 50 years. Obviously, this has worked out well for the residents, who remain mired in poverty.

A second reason is that Higgins gets infused with union money. According to OpenSecrets.org, five of his top six contributors (11 of his top 25) to his 2009-2010 campaign committee are unions. An interesting issue is whether union support explains his vote or whether the causal arrow goes in the opposite direction. My guess is that it goes both ways.

A third reason is that the local news media have not highlighted just how far left Higgins is. One searches in vain for Buffalo News articles highlighting Higgins’ spending habits or his lockstep party voting (perhaps I missed the articles). Higgins actually labels himself a moderate, raising the issue of whether his nose grows longer when he says this. A fourth reason is that Higgins dispenses pork to generate further support. He is hardly alone in doing so. Here he joins the long tradition that includes Congressmen we can all be proud of, such as the late Dan Rostenkowski, Ted Stevens, and Robert Byrd.

Brian Higgins is far-left member of Congress and part of the Obama revolution. He is a case study in how a big-spending Congress stays in power and runs the economy into the ground. Western New York has only itself to blame for him.

24 August 2010

Education: Students Take it Easy

Stephen Kershnar
Colleges Students: Less Studying, More Recreating
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 23, 2010

College students are studying a lot less than they used to. An interesting issue is why they are and whether we should care about it.

In a study by Philip Babcock of University of California-Santa Barbara and Mindy Marks of University of California-Riverside found that students study roughly 40% less than they used to (14 hours per week versus 24 hours per week). Their study looks at the period from 1961 to 2003. They argue that the trend is a general one in that it can be seen across different types of students: those who work and those who don’t, every major, and different calibers of colleges (elite to bargain-basement). This is not a recent phenomena, most of it happened before 1981, suggesting that the pattern is not due to technological advances, such as the computer.

This difference is not due to students being more prepared. Babcock and Marks point out that there is little evidence that recent students are more prepared than earlier ones. The former do not have higher test scores when they enter college. For the 2007-2008 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education found that roughly a third of students needed at least one remedial class. At public two-year classes, this disgraceful number was 42%.

Nor is the difference due to lack of spending on college. According to the New York Times, the cost of college in 2008 was roughly $19,000 per student. This is $10,600 more than in other developed countries.

There are several explanations for the lesser effort. University of California at Berkeley professor David Kirp and fellow researchers argue that market pressures have caused colleges to cater to students’ desire for leisure. Kirp and company support this claim by arguing that student evaluations, which became popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s, reward easier instructors and punish harder ones. On their theory, because many faculty prefer to spend their time on research and students prefer to spend their time on leisure, the faculty trade higher grades for better evaluations. Ohio University Economist Richard Vedder points out that in the period during which studying has dropped, grade inflation occurred. He notes that grade point averages have risen by half a letter grade during this period (2.5 or 2.6 to 3.0). Babcock and Marks note that they are hard-pressed to name a reward that faculty get for maintaining high standards. The penalties for doing so are clear.

Another explanation is that grades matter less than they used to. Stanford Economist Caroline Hoxby argues that the difference between the ability-levels of students at different colleges has increased over time, while the difference between the ability-levels of students at a particular college has decreased. That is, colleges are getting better at segregating by ability. Probably as a result of this, employers depend less on college grades in hiring than they used to and so students put less time in to getting better grades and more time into getting in to college than they used to.

There is some reason to believe that students who study more learn more and earn more. In general, undergraduates are not given an exit exam, so it is difficult to determine how much they learn in college, let alone whether they are learning less than they used to. However, there is some reason to believe that they are learning less than they otherwise would were they to study more. Studying more increases both academic performance (specifically, grade point average) and future earnings. Decreases in study time have been found to cause lower grades. Greater studying has been found to correlate with greater wages, although whether the former causes the latter is less clear. If extra studying produces valuable knowledge or skills, then less study time does cost both the students and their society.

I wonder if this is an issue that we should care about. After all, students are like the rest of us. They must choose between learning less and recreating more. For example, when we spend Sunday afternoon watching the NFL, we lose out on valuable learning time. I don’t there’s a right answer as to how much students should study.

The problem with this live and let live approach is that we are paying through the nose for public colleges and as such students’ studying time is relevant in our deciding whether we are wasting money. After all, people should feel free to improve their abilities in ultimate Frisbee, surfing the net, and sex, but they shouldn’t expect taxpayers to subsidize their doing so. Perhaps our money would be better spent on paying only for those students who study more or do better, rather than the indiscriminate grants and subsidies that currently bloat college spending.

One way to generate more studying time might be to have mandatory exit exams that would allow colleges to be measured and compared in terms of how much education they provide to students. Many colleges would feel the pressure from prospective students, employers, and alumni and respond by developing incentives for students to study more. Just as public school teachers in K-12 screamed bloody murder when exit exams were introduced, college faculty (myself included) and administrators would likely do the same. Some colleges might decide to opt out and they should be allowed to opt out, so long as they go off the public dole. If exit exams were made a condition for federal or state aid, taxpayers would be better able to see whether their tax dollars were being spent wisely.

I’m not sure that less student studying is a bad thing or that exit exams are a good solution, but less sure that the status quo is adequate.

16 August 2010

Fat People and Government Hostility

Stephen Kershnar
Should the government target fatties?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 6, 2010

In the U.S., the federal and state governments hate smokers but not fatties. They tax the hell out of the former, but not the latter. They sponsor harsh public-relation campaigns that vilify smoking, but not obesity or overeating. At issue is whether the different treatment is justified. Those who love freedom probably think that the government shouldn’t be in either business, but let us leave their concerns aside.

Consider the taxes and bans on smoking. Governments at the federal and state levels target smokers with a vengeance. For every pack of cigarettes, the U.S. government taxes it by $1.01 and the states often tax it more. For example, New York taxes every pack $4.35, which is the highest in the country. Thus, in New York, a smoker pays $5.36 in taxes per pack. Other lefty states like Connecticut ($3 per pack) and Massachusetts ($2.51) do the same. 394 colleges now ban smoking. These bans are spreading like wildfire. In 2005, only 18 colleges did so.

Smoking is less common than obesity. In the U.S., only about 16% of adults smoke daily and only about 20% smoke at all. In contrast, a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that roughly 34% of adults are obese. The rates of obesity are exploding. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes that in 1993 only 14% of adults were obese. Among women, weight problems are getting out of hand. Roughly 36% of women are obese and 64% are overweight. The average woman now weighs roughly 165 lbs. and the most frequently worn size is a 14 (this is plus-size). Among minorities, things are worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) using 2006-2008 data found that black and Hispanic women are much more likely than white women to be obese.

What could justify the government’s policy of targeting smokers but not fat people?

Differences in heath-care costs do not justify different treatment. One 1997 study from The New England Journal of Medicine found that smoking reduces long-term health-care costs because smokers die early and a significant portion of medical costs are incurred by the elderly. That is, it is not even clear that smoking produces health-care costs rather than savings. In contrast, the head of the CDC, Thomas Frieden, estimates that obesity costs the country $147 billion per year (2008 figure). Note these figures are controversial.

Nor is the different treatment justified because smoking is more dangerous than obesity. A 2001 study by two RAND researchers Roland Sturm and Kenneth Wells found that obesity is more risky than is smoking. They found that the obese suffer higher rates of suffering from a chronic illness than do smokers. Chronic illnesses include diabetes, hypertension, asthma, heart disease, and cancer. The researchers found that the obese also spend more on health-care services and medication than do daily smokers.

General disgust or dislike probably doesn’t justify the different treatment. First, it is doubtful that the government should target something just because people disapprove of it. Second, it is plausible that the majority disapproves of obesity more than smoking. Consider several studies cited by Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode. One survey showed that college students would prefer a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or shoplifter than someone who is obese. A second found that 90% of formerly obese individuals would rather be blind than return to being fat. A third found that obesity carries as much sigma as AIDS, drug addiction, and criminal behavior. A fourth found that roughly 90% of obese individuals reported humiliating comments from family, friends, or coworkers. While I could not find any data to support this claim, I suspect that smokers are not subject to as much or as intense disgust. In addition, consider the following thought experiment. Would you prefer your spouse be a thin smoker or an obese non-smoker? My guess is that most readers, and especially younger adults, would prefer the former.

The difference isn’t explained by harm to others. It is widely reported that second-hand smoke harms non-smokers. Less frequently reported is that obesity is contagious. A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if they have a friend who becomes obese, 40% if they have a sibling who does so, and 37% if a spouse does so. If this is correct, then allowing obese people into a school or workplace poses a risk to others. Perhaps the discussion of harm is too quick given the role of choice in the different types of second-hand harm.

Perhaps the difference is explained by the difficulty of change. Diets tend not to work. UCLA psychology professor Traci Mann and fellow researchers found that one to two thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets and that this probably underestimates the degree to which dieting is counterproductive. Even when dieting produces weight loss, Mann and associates found that it is not clear that this improves dieters’ health. In addition, Rhode argues, stigma is not an effective way to deal with obesity and in fact it is more likely to cause obese people to overeat than to eat less. Attempts to quit smoking are more likely to work. For example, a number of countries, including the U.S., have more ex-smokers than smokers. Smoking also appears to be under our control in a way in which weight is not. Rockefeller University Jules Hirsch and Columbia University researcher Rudolph Leibel estimate that 70% of the variation in people’s weight is inherited and that people can control their weight only within a relatively narrow range. It is unclear how this fits with the data about the skyrocketing rates of obesity.

Taxes are also an effective way to lessen smoking. For example, for every 10% increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes, youth smoking rates decrease by 7%. There is no indication that a similar policy would lessen obesity.

So perhaps what justifies governments’ decision to target smokers rather than fatties is that the former are more malleable. This assumes that the government should be in the business of telling people how to live their lives and this assumption is questionable.

27 July 2010

Race: Black Men & White Women; Asian Women & Black Men

Stephen Kershnar
Imbalance in Interracial Marriage
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 20, 2010

In politics, race has reared its ugly head. The NAACP accused the Tea Party of racism. Charges of racism have been directed at the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation. Racial comments have plagued Obama’s former minister Jeremiah Wright, Obama administration czars Van Jones and Mark Lloyd, and U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod. President Obama injected himself into a conflict between a Harvard professor and a police officer and the conflict and summit led to a nationwide discussion of race. Oddly, there is much less discussion of interracial marriage, particularly an asymmetrical marriage pattern, which is far more interesting.

In the U.S., Interracial marriage is common. The 2000 census shows that 4.9% of marriages are interracial (2,669,558 marriages). There is a striking asymmetry in marriages involving whites, blacks, and Asian-Americans. Consider blacks. Black males are far more likely to marry whites than are black women. In 2006, 6.6% of black males (286,000) had a white spouse, whereas only 2.8% of black women (117,000) had one. On a side note a similar pattern likely holds for cohabitation and sex.

Steve Sailor, president of the Human Biodiversity Institute, points out that this difference underestimates the pattern given the acute shortage of black males in relation to black females. The 2000 census indicates that there are 10 black women for every 9 black men. In addition, roughly 10% of young black men (ages 20-29) are incarcerated in a given year (2002 figure) and roughly one in three is under the control of the criminal justice system. In addition, Sailor points out, black women work far more often in corporate offices, universities, and other places that have richer and more educated men and this should be given them greater access to potential white spouses.

The opposite pattern is true for Asian-Americans. For Asian-American/white marriages, 75% involve an Asian-American woman and white man. This is a strong effect given that in 2006, 41% of Asian-American-born women had a white husband. In the past, this pattern has resulted in significantly more Asian-American women being married than Asian-American men. One issue is what explains these asymmetries. A second issue is whether it justifies the anger that is alleged to be percolating among black women and, to a lesser extent, Asian-American men.

One explanation is that black males and Asian-American women are doing what business people often do, expanding their market, thereby giving them access to more buyers and more leverage over ones from their own group. This explanation is unsatisfactory because if it were just an economic explanation one would expect black women and Asian-American men to do the same thing and they don’t do so as often. In addition, if this were correct, Asian-American men and black women would improve their economic position by dating or marrying each other and they don’t. In 2006, there were very few marriages (.02% of all marriages) between Asian-American men and black women.

A second explanation has to do with how social condition shapes women’s preferences. A study by Columbia University professor Raymond Fisman and fellow researchers indicates that when it comes to dating, women have a strong preference for their own race, whereas men don’t. For example, black women prefer black men, Hispanic women prefer Hispanic men, and so on. The one exception was East Asian women (Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans). They treated Asian-American and white men the same and discriminated against others. This explanation claims that the asymmetry is explained by women’s preferences and that these preferences are the result of social conditioning. This explanation doesn’t explain why social conditioning would lead Asian-American women, but not other minority women, to avoid discriminating against white men. In any case, this explanation is at most part of the picture because it doesn’t explain the pattern with regard to blacks. In addition, Steve Sailor points out that the social-conditioning theory fails to take into account how different the conditioning and culture are among groups like Koreans, Filipinos, Cambodian refugees, and 5th generation Japanese-Americans.

A third explanation is that on average, and with many exceptions, black men and Asian-American women are better looking than their same-race counterparts. Black women are considerably more likely to be obese when compared to black men and white women. Using data from The Journal of the American Medical Association, they are 33% and 50% respectively more likely to be obese. In general, society severely punishes obesity. Obese women are 20% less likely to marry and 30% less likely to had sex over the past year when compared to normal-weight women. They are also paid significantly less in the workplace (one study found that obese white women make 24% less). One survey showed that college students would prefer a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or shoplifter than someone who is obese. When it comes to dating, Raymond Fisman and his fellow researchers showed that men emphasize their partner’s looks far more than do women.

Asian-American men are on average shorter than other males and society punishes short men. As Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode points out, short men are less likely to be hired and promoted, paid less, and underrepresented in leadership positions. For example, University of Rochester economics Steven Landsburg points out that on average, men who are 6-feet tall make roughly $6,000 more than someone who is 5-foot-6-inches after controlling for education and experience.

Anecdotally, there are more Asian-American women than men who are sex symbols (for example, Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh) and news anchors (for example, Lisa Ling and Connie Chung). The women also seem to be far more common in online pornography. Don’t believe me? Check. Also, because Asian-American women are less likely to be overweight or obese than their white and black women competitors and they likely have a competitive advantage in dating and marriage that their male counterparts lack. When it comes to stereotypes, as Sailor points out, Asian-American men are often portrayed in TV as less masculine than other groups (for example, African-American men).

I’m not sure what to make of this third explanation. At most, it is part of the picture. Also, whether the pattern is desirable is a question left for another day.

There are reports that black women bitterly resent this pattern. Sailor cites discussions in movies like Waiting to Exhale and daytime talk shows. A similar pattern, albeit less visible, is reported among Asian-American men. It is unclear whether these anecdotes represent a widespread attitude or just attention-grabbing stories. In any case, the resentment is misplaced in that it is hard to see what the objection is to individuals finding love and moving toward a better life. If individuals don’t have moral duties toward racial groups or cultures, and it is hard to see why they would, the resentment is just envy masquerading as race solidarity.

14 July 2010

Constitution: Guns and the Left's Attack on Incorporation

Stephen Kershnar
Guns and the Second Amendment: The Constitution Dodges a Bullet
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 12, 2010

The recent Supreme Court decision, McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. ____ (2010), is a major victory in a country whose constitution is largely disappearing. In a preceding case, District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. _____ (2008), the Court struck down a District of Columbia law that banned the possession of handguns in the home. The Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a gun because guns are connected to self-defense. The Court argued that this right allows individuals to possess handguns in their homes.

In McDonald, the Court considered a Chicago law that in effect banned private citizens from having handguns. On a side note, the Court noted that Chicago has one of the highest murder rates in the country (including cities like New York City and Los Angeles) and rates of other violent crimes that exceed the average in comparable cities. Several of the people who sued Chicago did so because they had been threatened or were victims of violence by drug dealers, burglars, etc. and wanted to protect themselves.

Chicago argued that neither the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause (“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States”) nor the Due Process Clause (“[N]or shall any State deprive any person of the life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) results in the states like Illinois being subject to the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment says, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Chicago argued that the Due Process Clause does not incorporate the Second Amendment (apply it to the states). Rather, the clause only applies to the states only those parts of the Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments) which are indispensible to a “civilized” legal system. Because there are civilized countries that ban guns, Chicago argued that the Due Process Clause does not apply the Second Amendment to the states. On this view, then, the states can ban gun ownership even if the federal government cannot.

By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court rejected Chicago’s argument. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito argued that the Due Process Clause incorporates the Second Amendment (applies it to the states). His argument has two parts. First, the Due Process Clauses includes a particular right in the first Eight Amendments to the Constitution only if it is (a) fundamental to the U.S.’s scheme of ordered liberty or (b) deeply rooted in the U.S.’s history and tradition. The Court found that the right to self-defense, including the right to a handgun, meets these conditions.

Alito argued that the right to self-defense, including the right to own a gun, is deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition. Evidence for this can be seen in that the right was part of the rights of Englishmen before the U.S. came into existence and that this influenced the founders’ thinking. Also, there is evidence that the founders who drafted and ratified the Bill of Rights viewed the right to own a gun for self-defense as a fundamental right. In fact, Alito argued, the debate at the time was not over whether citizens had such a right, that was assumed, but whether it was adequately protected by the federal government’s limited powers or whether it warranted separate protection via the Bill of Rights. The historical importance of this right can also be seen in that four states adopted gun-right laws before the Constitution was ratified and nine more did so in the roughly thirty-year period after it went into effect.

Alito refrained from adopting the view that the Due Process Clause incorporates all of the Bill of Rights. Justice Hugo Black famously put forth this position, but the Court never adopted it. However, Alito made it clear that the Court is moving toward Black’s position.

The Court’s reasoning came under sharp attack from the right and left. Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Due Process Clause protects only process rights and cannot restrict the content of laws in the way in which Alito suggests. For example, Thomas noted, it protects the right against double jeopardy, the right to a lawyer in criminal cases, and so on. Thomas argued that an individual’s right to own a gun is a privilege of American citizenship. Hence, it is protected by the Privileges and Immunities Clause. As the Cato Institute’s Josh Blackman and Ilya Shapiro point out, Thomas sought to reject 140 years of precedent that had been put forth in bad faith by a recalcitrant Reconstruction-era Supreme Court. Thomas’ argument rests on his theory of interpretation. He holds that the Constitution’s meaning is determined by considering how ordinary citizens would have understood the Constitution’s language at the time it was put into place.

Thomas’s approach is appealing. His theory respects the original meaning of the Constitution’s language and its structure (relation between the parts of the Constitution). His interpretation comes closest to what the people who wrote and ratified the Constitution had in mind. The downside is that he gives precedent short shrift. Alito’s argument fits better with precedent. Both produce the same result in so far as they hold that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment.

Justice Stephen Breyer argued the Second Amendment was not intended to protect an individual’s right to own a gun for self-defense. He argues that by roughly 8 to 1, professional historians of early American history agree with him and the Court should avoid second guessing the experts. Breyer argues that even if this were not the case, there are several reasons to think the Due Process Clause does not incorporate the Second Amendment. Among the reasons are that there is no consensus on whether the right to own guns is fundamental, the right does not protect minorities or others neglected by the political system, and determining the scope of the right would force judges to make decisions about gun safety and effectiveness that are outside their area of expertise.

It is hard to know how any of these reasons are relevant. The reasons are policy considerations. If judges consider them, then they cease to interpret the law (what judges are supposed to do) and start to make the law (what legislators are supposed to do). Nor is it clear where these policies come from. They are not explicitly or implicitly in the Constitution. Nor are they a part of fundamental American values such as liberty, equality, or democracy. In addition, Breyer’s reasoning fits poorly with his reasoning in other areas, for example, abortion.

The Supreme Court, especially Justices like Breyer, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, has in effect crossed out important parts of the Constitution (Commerce Clause, Takings Clause, and Tenth Amendment). They almost got the Second Amendment. Scary.

23 June 2010

Gay Marriage: The Polygamy Argument

Stephen Kershnar
Gay Marriage and Polygamy
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 15, 2010

In 2008, California voters passed ballot initiative Proposition 8. It amended the California constitution to prohibit gay marriage. Its text stated, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” It passed 52% to 48%. In California, a federal judge is currently hearing a case on whether Proposition 8 is Constitutional. The case will likely to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit and then the Supreme Court.

The passage of Proposition 8 is part of a pattern. Over the past few decades, forty-one states and the federal government have adopted laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In all thirty-one states in which the marriage issue has been put to a general vote, same-sex marriage lost. It is legal in only five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont) and the District of Columbia.

The proposition was a response to the California Supreme Court’s ruling that same sex couples have the right to marry under the California constitution. The battle over Proposition 8 shook the state. Proponents and opponents raised huge sums of money ($39.9 million and $43.3 million respectively). Religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), various conservative groups like Focus on the Family, and political figures like John McCain and Newt Gingrich supported it. The Mormons carried much of the load, pouring in money and a sizable volunteer army. All ten of the state’s largest newspapers opposed it, as did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Barack Obama, and an array of other groups, notably Jewish, Episcopalian, and Unitarian ones.

An issue here is whether the arguments for legalizing gay marriage also support legalizing plural marriage. Plural marriage can consist of different relationships, such as one man and several women (polygamy), one women and several men, lesbian groups, multiple heterosexual men and women, multiple bisexual men and women, and so on.

There are two interesting arguments for gay marriage. The first argument is that every person has a fundamental right to marry the person of his choice. This fundamental right might rest on his having the more basic right to shape his own life according to self-chosen principles. Alternatively, it might rest on his having a more basic right to be treated similarly to others with regard to state benefits, at least when he is not directly harming someone else. To my mind, this first argument is convincing.

The second argument is that gay marriage will benefit the gay people who are married, their children, and the rest of society. The argument sometime rests on the claim that gay marriage will neither lessen the rate at which men and women marry, nor harm the children of heterosexual marriages. The empirical argument is messy. One issue is whether children raised by homosexual couples are as well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual couples. The American Psychological Association claims that they are, but others (for example, the dissenting judges in the landmark Massachusetts case on gay marriage) argue that the studies conflict and as a group they are inconclusive. Given that gay couples are already raising hundreds of thousands of children, another issue is whether having their parents marry will benefit them than if they do not.

The first argument supports plural marriage. If people have a fundamental right to marry who they want then this includes not merely a member of the same sex, but others as well. Richard Posner, a 7th Circuit Judge, points out that if a woman who wants to be a polygamist’s second wife is prevented from doing so, then her fundamental right is violated.

The second argument less clearly supports plural marriage. Various commentators, such as William Saletan of Slate.com, claim that plural marriage contains harmful features not present in monogamous marriages: instability, sexual jealousy, and stress. Cathy Young, writing in Reason Magazine, claims that the availability of plural marriages would add anxiety and unhealthy pressure to current marriages by giving spouses more options. However, their claims are unsupported by any scientific studies. They rely on a few anecdotes and the plural of anecdote is not data (sadly, not my line). Various commentators in the first half of the 20th Century might have similarly relied on anecdotes to explain why interracial marriage is a bad idea. In addition, it should not surprise us if people who engage in an illegal activity have more problems than do those who would engage in it were it legal.

Even if there were data that supported these claims, it is not clear what follows. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Hongyu Wang and others found that interracial marriages are significantly more likely to end in divorce (24% more likely) and last less long when they do than in-group marriages. If divorce is harmful to both the divorced couple and their kids and if this sort of data does not provide a reason to prohibit interracial marriage, then it is not clear why it would do so for plural marriage.

Plural marriage probably has a longer history than gay marriage. It is likely that human beings evolved in polygamist groups, although it is not clear if this involved anything like marriage. In addition, law professor Jonathan Turley argues that in the Bible, leading figures like Abraham, David, Jacob, and Solomon were polygamists and favored by God. It is also not clear that plural marriage has more problems with infidelity than does gay marriage. Stanley Kurtz, writing in The Weekly Standard, cites West Virginia University sociologist Gretchen Stiers and University of Vermont psychologists Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solomon to support the claim that gay male marriages are far less monogamous than heterosexual ones and that the former place less emphasis on monogamy.

It is irrelevant whether more people view plural marriage negatively than view gay marriage negatively. Our freedom does not rest on a popularity contest.

If the right-based argument for gay marriage is sound, then a similar argument applies to plural marriage. If one adopts the benefit argument for gay marriage, then there is no substitute for scientific study. The same is true for plural marriage. Mere anecdotes simply will not do. The solution that makes these issues go away is for the government to get out of the marriage business, but there is no movement in this direction.

12 May 2010

Constitution: First Amendment

Stephen Kershnar
Animal-Cruelty Videos and the Supreme Court
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 11, 2010

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court in United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. ___ (2010) by an 8-1 decided that a statute (18 U.S.C. 48) that prohibited the portrayal of acts harmful to animals was unconstitutional. The law made it a criminal penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone who creates, sells, or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty if done for commercial gain. It defined “animal cruelty” as one in which “a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed,” if that conduct violates federal or state law where the creation, sale, or possession took place. It thus criminalized the commercial depiction of activity that is already illegal. It exempted depictions that have serious social value. Scientific, educational, and artistic videos are the sort of depictions that might have enough social value.

The defendant, Robert Stevens, sold videos of pit bulls fighting each other and attacking other animals (specifically, a wild boar and a domestic farm pig). His videos included dogfights from the 60’s and 70’s and recent dogfights in Japan, where it is allegedly legal.

There is a strong case for the law. It was intended to stop the interstate market for crush videos. These videos involve the intentional torture and killing of helpless animals such as cats, dogs, mice, hamsters, and monkeys. These videos are sexually arousing to some consumers. Justice Alito provides a graphic description of one such video involving a woman and a kitten that is absolutely disgusting.

Congress’s motivation in passing such a law was that the only effective way of stopping this criminal conduct (it is illegal in all 50 states and D.C.) is to make it unprofitable. Without the law, the filmmakers are hard to prosecute because the videos are made in secret and often do not show the faces of the women torturing the animals or the video’s time and location. In the rare cases when such perpetrators are identified, they effectively defend themselves by arguing that prosecutor cannot prove the location in which the film was made (thus, the state lacks jurisdiction) or that the statute of limitations has not run (thus, it is too late to prosecute). When President Clinton signed the law, his signing statement indicated that it would cover only crush videos and nothing else, not even dog fighting.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, found the law unconstitutional. Roberts noted that there are areas of expression that are unprotected by the First Amendment, including obscenity, child pornography, and incitement. He declined to include animal cruelty on the list because it was historically unprotected. The government countered that such speech had so little value that it was unworthy of First Amendment protection. Both arguments are weak. Contra Roberts, a prohibition on expression does not become constitutionally valid just because it’s been around for a long time. On the other hand, the Constitution does not authorize Congress to decide what expression is worth protecting.

Roberts then argued that the statute was overbroad. That is, it criminalized constitutionally protected speech. Roberts argued that it banned depictions of animal suffering beyond crush videos, animal-fighting videos, and other forms of extreme animal cruelty. He reasoned that because the statute covered any illegal treatment of animals and only made exception for material with serious social value, it prohibited hunting videos. He observed that most hunting videos are recreational and thus lack serious social value. Interestingly, Roberts noted that the government provided no explanation of why videos of hunting or Spanish bullfighting have more social value than those of Japanese dog fighting.

The government responded that it would limit its prosecution to extreme cruelty. Roberts dismissed this silly argument. An unconstitutional statute should not be upheld because the government promises to use it responsibly. Roberts ducked the most difficult question, which is whether a narrow ban on crush videos and deadly animal fights would be constitutional.

In dissent, Justice Alito argued that the case should be sent back to the lower court to address whether the narrow ban was constitutional. He argued that the statute was limited to extreme animal cruelty (crush videos and deadly animal fights) and the court got it wrong when it suggested that the statute covers hunting videos. Alito argued that under the statute, such videos were protected because they do not focus on animal cruelty and have serious social value and because Congress did not intend to prohibit them. He argued that this statute was similar to the Court’s previous treatment of child pornography. Like a state law prohibiting child pornography, the ban on depicting animal cruelty was the only effective means by which to prevent horrible and already illegal activity from occurring and the harm prevented easily outweighs the social value of the videos.

Consider the issue of whether the narrow ban would be constitutional. At issue is whether, as a constitutional matter, such material may be banned if it is the only effective way to prevent such abuse. The Constitution includes the basic rule that various social goals are not to be pursued by preventing people from accessing various subject matters or ideas. The Supreme Court opened the door to this when in it allowed states and local governments to ban obscenity (hardcore pornography). It is hard to say what ideas or value obscenity and animal-cruelty videos have, nevertheless they do appear to be express a viewpoint, even if only an aesthetic one.

The sort of debate that Roberts and Alito got into over whether hunting videos had serious social value is not in the text of the Constitution. Nor was it part of the original intent of those who wrote the Bill of Rights or the original understanding of the people when it was passed. Instead, this issue looks like something the legislature should consider. The latter is better able to determine whether deer hunting videos have serious social value.

Also, there is an oddity in that while the justices and members of Congress were outraged by the dog fighting videos, and they are horrific, it is alleged by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and others that factory farms treat pigs and chickens in ways that are comparably horrific. That they do so in private and for taste rather than entertainment is irrelevant.

If the statute is rewritten to be a narrow ban on crush and animal-fighting videos, the Court will not be able to duck the issue. The narrow ban might be the only effective way to protect innocent animals from being tortured for sexual entertainment. It thus falls under one of the government’s core functions: protecting individuals from harm.

On the other hand, the statute targets expression rather than the underlying victimization. It thus conflicts with the First Amendment’s text and the original intent behind it. We should hesitate to ignore the Constitution. Even when the expression has minimal value and even if the depicted conduct is filthy and destructive, carving exceptions into the Constitution lays the groundwork for the government to target other areas of free speech.

28 April 2010

Professors & Students Having Sex

Stephen Kershnar
Faculty-Student Consensual Relations and the Church Lady
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 26, 2010

At state colleges and universities, the issue of faculty-student romantic and sexual relations is an issue that refuses to go away. It often pits administrators and feminists with Victorian sensibilities against those with live-and-let-live attitudes about romance and sex. I should disclose that a number of the facts and ideas for this column come from SUNY-Fredonia philosophy professor and lawyer, Raymond Belliotti.

As a legal matter, only one public institution (College of William & Mary) bans all romantic and sexual relations between faculty and undergraduate students and between supervising faculty and graduate students. Such blanket prohibitions were rejected by other universities, including the University of Virginia, University of Washington, and the University of Texas at Arlington. Some private universities (for example, Rice University and Yale University) have adopted a version of the prohibition. The complete prohibition at state institutions is likely unconstitutional because it violates people’s rights to privacy and intimate association, rights strongly affirmed in a recent Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). Even if such a ban were Constitutional, consider whether state colleges and universities should adopt it.

There are two models which track the view that faculty and student are adults (the “adult model”). On one model, the libertarian model, the regulation of romances should be governed by sexual harassment rules. Sexual harassment rules prohibit faculty attempting to trade grades or other benefits for romance or sex. They also prohibit hostile working environments, whereby repeated sexual attention makes someone uncomfortable. On a second model, the supervisory model, such relations are prohibited only when the faculty member supervises or evaluates the student. This second model allows faculty-student relations to be governed by the same rules that govern relationships between senior and junior faculty and between those administrators and staff with supervisory roles over others.

The adult model has a number of advantages. First, it makes it clear that when they leave the workplace, faculty and students’ lives are their own and not subject to meddling by administrators and staff. Consider what we would think if administrators who wanted to monitor the weekend habits of the faculty, including the churches they attend and the websites they visit. Second, it protects faculty and students from degrading investigations. For example, imagine some flabby old administrator at a Southern college asking a 22-year-old female student when an English professor first touched her breasts and you get the picture. At SUNY-Fredonia, there are allegations that administrators engaged in covert searches of faculty email when investigating one or more of the cases that have come up in the last few years. Third, unlike the adult model, the blanket prohibition discourages beneficial relationships and marriages. At Fredonia, there are quite a number of past and current faculty who are married to former students (not always their students). Because the benefits of marriage and children are weighty, opponents of the adult model must show that the costs of the adult model outweigh its benefits. They are unlikely to do so. Fourth, it fits with the view that students are adults and ought to be treated as such.

Fifth, the adult model prevents further intrusion into fraternization and non-romantic friendships that are common on campuses. As various professors have pointed out, feminist professors, African-American faculty, and advisors to student clubs often supervise and befriend students, sometimes hosting events in their homes, and are encouraged and rewarded for such activity. This happens even though this brings about widespread concerns of bias and favoritism.

One objection to the adult model is that the faculty and student are in an unequal power relationship and that this inequality is bad or wrong. The idea here is that the professor carries with him (and it is almost always a male) a superior role that makes him able to control the nature and direction of the relationship. Under the libertarian model, there might also be grades that make the relationship even more unequal. This objection is often attributed to feminists in part because feminists argued against the adult model in the biggest battle over this issue, which occurred at the University of Virginia.

The power to control the nature and direction of a relationship doesn’t just depend on one’s position at work. It also depends on a person’s psychological strength, willingness to leave, and on her value in the dating market. The latter is in part a function of things like personality, intellect, and attractiveness. Because students often have far greater market value than the professor or than the other women or men he might date, it is not in the least bit clear that the professor has more power. More important, even if there were a power differential, it is not clear that this makes a relationship bad or wrong. Lots of couples differ in their power to shape the relationship (consider couples who differ in attractiveness, intelligence, and strength of personality) and no one thinks that this makes their relationship bad or wrong.

A second objection is that such relationships often involve premarital sex and such sex harms or degrades female students. The claim that such sex harms them might be an empirical claim about the psychological effects of premarital sex. I doubt there is evidence to back this up, but even if there were, an obvious solution would be to publicize the risk and then allow women to decide for themselves whether to take the risk. In general, we do this with regard to their sexual lives, so it is unclear why we should take a different approach in academia. The claim that such sex involves moral harm (best imagined coming from Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady) is the sort of lifestyle choice that is none of the state’s business. It is for this reason that the administrators and staff should not be in the business of discouraging homosexuality, promoting celibacy, and so on.

A third objection is that students are not adults. This objection is a variant on the sex-is-harmful objection, because even if this were true, protecting children against something makes sense only if it poses a significant risk of harm. As law professor Sherry Young has pointed out, the notion that mostly male administrators should ignore adult women’s own perceptions and preferences about their lives and sexuality infantilizes them. She points out that such protective rules resemble paternalistic measures like curfew restrictions and restrictions on overnight visitation that were abandoned years ago.

The administrators and feminists who seek to prohibit faculty-student relationships have a pinched and demeaning worldview. Their arguments against the adult model are unsupported by evidence, rely on false and irrelevant theories of power and sexuality, and infantilize students. As such, their arguments should be ignored and they should lose credibility.

14 April 2010

The Moral Status of Hazing

Stephen Kershnar
Hazing: Naked in Ice Water
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 12, 2010

Hazing occurs when one person humiliates or imposes risky conditions on a second in return for some group-related benefit. The benefit might involve inclusion or promotion in the group. There is a widespread attempt to stop hazing, although the arguments for doing so are not too convincing.

At www.hazing.cornell.edu, Cornell University provides some examples of hazing. Cornell doesn’t specify which hazing acts were done by fraternities, sororities, sports teams, or military teams (ROTC groups). In one case, new members were made to do calisthenics to the point of collapse. In a second case, other new members (my guess, sorority sisters) were pressured to make out with members of the same sex. In a third case, new members were put under bright lights and interrogated. When they answered incorrectly, ketchup and mustard were thrown on them. In a fourth case, new members were made to lie down naked in a makeshift pool filled with six inches of ice water, beer, kitchen garbage, and urine.

Hazing is illegal in all but six states. In New York, depending on how it is done, hazing is a misdemeanor (Class A allows for up to a year incarceration) or violation (up to 15 days incarceration). It is also prohibited by many colleges and universities, including Cornell. Even the military prohibits hazing and classifies it as a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Despite this criminalization and other prohibitions, hazing is surprisingly common. One 2008 study by University of Maine professors Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden found that 55% of college students (and 61% of males) involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experienced hazing. In fact, 47% experienced it before coming to college. This number goes up to 70% for those involved in a varsity team or who joined a fraternity or sorority. The most frequent types of hazing involve participating in drinking (drinking games or binge drinking), singing or chanting, and associating with specific people. The first two were the most common for varsity teams, fraternities, and sororities.

There are two main arguments for hazing. First, some defenders of hazing argue that it doesn’t wrong new members because they gave informed consent. The notion that you can’t be wronged by treatment to which you consented is widely accepted and used to explain why sex, wrestling, and surgery are not objectionable.

The second argument is that hazing is permissible because it is the best way to bring about desirable results. Proponents argue that hazing ensures that members are committed to their organization and each other, encourages bonding, and fosters a sense of exclusivity. Together these changes strengthen friendships and a sense of identification and pride in the group. Consider, for example, the commitment to each other, sense of brotherhood, and pride in their group found in Navy Seals, Green Berets, and Marines. This is likely due in no small part to the hellish training they go through.

Allan and Madden’s study provide some support for this beneficial-results view. They found that more student perceive positive than negative outcomes of hazing. In addition, a significant number (31%) said it made them feel more like a part of the group.

One objection to hazing, and probably the one that underlies criminalization and campus prohibitions, is that it causes unnecessary harm or involves coercion. The notion that it causes unnecessary harm depends on the claim that the benefits of hazing (commitment, bonding, and exclusivity) could be had in other ways. This is an empirical claim. I am not aware of any studies that support it. Perhaps there are some.

The notion that hazing usually involves coercion is a mistake. New members can avoid it simply by leaving the group. Some hazing is undoubtedly too dangerous, but from this it does not follow that all hazing is wrong.

A second objection is that hazing is degrading. Philosopher Michael Cholboi argues that a practice is degrading when its main goal is to subordinate another by getting him to accept his subordinate status. On this account, getting people to do lie in urinate-infused ice water or make out with members of the same sex (when not gay or bisexual) degrades them in this way. This might be seen as analogous to the degradation that accompanies being the submissive partner in bondage-and-domination sexuality.

The problem with Cholboi’s objection is that it is not clear that hazing does this. If enduring rough treatment is the means by which a group brings about commitment, bonding, and exclusivity, then it is not clear that hazing is, or should be seen as, subordinating. The data suggesting that students who have gone through hazing are more likely to view it positively than negatively and the data suggesting that nearly a third view it as more strongly bonding them to the group, suggests that many of those who are hazed don’t see it as degrading.

A third objection is that hazing exploits people’s desire to join fraternities, varsity teams, military units, and so on. Exploitation occurs when a person or group uses the desperation of a weaker person to make an unfair deal with the latter. The problem is that however much people want to join a fraternity, team, or military unit, they are not desperate in the relevant way (having only one reasonable option). For example, they are not similar to a starving woman who must trade sex for food. Even if new members are desperate, it is not clear that hazing is an unfair price to pay for the friendships, pride, and fun that accompanies membership in fraternities, elite military units, or varsity teams.

Despite the long history of hazing, prosecutors, military leaders, and campus administrators are trying to get rid of it. The arguments for doing so are unconvincing.

31 March 2010


Stephen Kershnar
The Breaking Point
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 28, 2010

The U.S. is rapidly approaching a breaking point when it will have to do one of three: lose a significant amount of wealth, cut government benefits or workers, or eliminate its foreign empire. It is not even clear that the third option is enough to eliminate the bloodletting. One thing is for sure, the solution will be painful.

The U.S. has spent itself into a hole. The government at all three levels (federal, state, and local) now spends more than 40 cents of every dollar produced in this country. According to www.usgovernmentspending.com, total spending is at a postwar high of 43% of the economy (gross domestic product) in 2009. The Heritage Foundation analyses show just how much spending is out of control. In 2008, the government at all levels spent $41,219 per household. This crazy level occurred because federal spending grew nearly seven times faster than people’s average (median) income from 1970-2008. In recent years, the problem has continued. Between 2002 and 2008, the federal government increased spending by roughly 7% per year (2 ½ times the inflation rate). Has your income increased at this clip?

This spending explosion has not been matched by an increase in revenue. The federal deficit was roughly 9.9% of the GDP in 2009 ($1.4 trillion) and is estimated to be 10.6% in 2010. The debt (sum of past and present deficits) is now enormous. The total federal debt was 86% of GDP in 2009 and is estimated to be 98% in 2010. Government projections show gargantuan deficits continuing into the next few years. To see the problem, consider what you would tell someone who makes $100,000 a year, owes $100,000, and plans to continue borrowing money to support his profligate lifestyle. Because 44% of the debt is owed to people and institutions in foreign countries, the debtors can’t easily be stiffed without a sharp increase in interest rates or painful cutoff of credit. The interest on the debt is 8% of the budget (2008 figure). As a result, the debt will feed on itself.

Given that the middle class and rich already pay so much of the revenue, this problem cannot be avoided by further soaking the rich. Already the top 50% of income earners pay 97% of the income-tax revenue (2007 National Taxpayers Foundation figure). That is, the bottom half of earners pay next to nothing (less than 3%) of income-tax revenue. Because the income taxes, corporate taxes, and estate and gift taxes constitute 59% of federal revenue, the upper classes already carry too much of the government weight.

Here’s the rub. To cut the spending, a powerful constituency or the U.S. foreign empire will have to take a hit. First, consider entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). They constitute 66% of federal spending. Medicare (Hospital Insurance program) and Social Security will be in the red by 2011, if they are not already. Any attempt to cut Social Security and Medicare (or Medicare patients in Obamacare) will run into a political buzz saw as the numerous and well organized older voters clamor to get what they were promised.

Second, consider government workers. According to a Cato Institute scholar Chris Edwards, government workers are well paid relative to private workers. Specifically, they make 34% more in wages and 70% more in benefits. This gaps shrinks but does not go away once you control for skills. They also have more secure jobs. Private workers are three times more likely to be discharged than government ones. Politically, government workers are a potent army. They are five times more likely to be unionized and constitute over half of total union membership. Their power can be seen in that even with anger at government at a fevered pitch, no national figure is calling for deep cuts to their ranks. It can also be seen in that fixing even the most obvious problem, incarceration (the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners), runs into strong union opposition.

Third, consider the U.S. foreign empire. Consider work done by columnist Pat Buchanan citing research by Arthur Vance and Chalmers Johnson. The U.S spends more on defense than the next 10 nations combined and has more firepower than the next 13 navies combined. U.S. troops are stationed in 148 countries and 11 territories, including 100,000 in Iraq, 100,000 in or headed to Afghanistan, 50,000 in Germany, 35,000 in Japan, and 28,000 in Korea. When the budgets for the Pentagon, two wars, foreign aid, intelligence agencies, contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and new embassies are added up, it is roughly $1 trillion per year. Even if we were to cut all of this spending to $0, this would still not balance the budget. And even a 50% cut would produce overwhelming opposition from the wealthy and powerful defense lobby.

Because of the hole the U.S. is in and because government spending is backed by some of the most powerful constituencies, the U.S. is unlikely to climb out of the financial hole by cutting spending. Nor can it tax its way out of the hole. But debts must sooner or later be paid. With total government spending at record levels and the rich and middle class already shouldering a heavy load, it simply is not possible to transfer more money from the private sector without keeping the economy in the doldrums, if not tanking it, and making us poorer. As it is, the increasing transfer of resources from the more efficient private sector to the less efficient government acts as a brake on economic progress.

Economic growth is further threatened by the specter of inflation. In recent years, the Federal Reserve has exploded the money supply. In the waning years of the Bush administration, it shot up the monetary base (a key part of the money supply) up by more than 100%. Such an increase has not been seen in 50 years. The coming inflation will not only make us poorer, but will also produce uncertainty that that businesses hate, thereby slowing business growth.

Something has to break. U.S. citizens will have to choose between a significant loss of wealth, serious cuts to entitlements or government workers, or losing their empire. Even the loss of the empire is probably not enough by itself. A breaking point is coming and someone is going to get pounded.