Evan Bayh says that a constitutional amendment may be necessary

in order to correct the corrosive effect of private money upon political campaigns.

www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/opinion/21bayh.html?hp

I also have to agree with Thomas Friedman in his column of today, although I am not generally an admirer of his.

“Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag….While it would certainly help if the president voiced a more compelling narrative, I am under no illusion that this alone would solve all his problems and ours. It comes back to us: We have to demand the truth from our politicians and be ready to accept it ourselves. We simply do not have another presidency to waste. There are no more fat years to eat through. If Obama fails, we all fail.”

www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/opinion/21friedman.html

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Leon Wieseltier v Andrew Sullivan, a Jewish layman’s reaction

I have been introduced to a public row between Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan by a conversation between Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Loury on bloggingheadstv:

bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26064

The venomous article directed at Sullivan by Wieseltier is here:

www.tnr.com/article/something-much-darker

Here is my reaction to the article, which I have also posted in the bloggingheadstv online forums, in a very slightly different version.

I guess there are two substantive claims in it that strike me as odd. The first is that there is no such thing as Jewish fundamentalism. Maybe Wieseltier is right about this, I certainly don’t know, but he could only be right if what he means is that there is such a thing as Christian fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism, and we know what they are, and Jewish claims to the Holy Land based upon biblical mandates are categorically different from these things. But since he does not bother to define what he means by fundamentalism, how are we supposed to judge the merits of his distinction? To me, and I will confess complete ignorance about what he’s referring to, it sounds like he’s dancing on the head of a pin. But then, that’s what Talmudists do, so I’m told. What this part of the piece reads like to me is simply an injunction: the goyim had better stay out of this dispute, unless they know as much about Judaism as I do. But the problem is, that’s impossible, because what the goy has to know is the internalized suffering of the post-Shoah Jew. Even Sullivan’s knowledge of minority status, via his homosexuality, is insufficient to convey the requisite understanding. Speaking as a Jew, I find it difficult to believe that Wieseltier can make good on his distinction between fundamentalism and the radical faith of certain Jewish settlers, but, as I say, I don’t even really know what he’s talking about. This whole part of the piece reminds me awfully much of Christopher Hitchens in his worst moments.

The second claim Wieseltier makes that strikes me as particularly weak is that Israel’s existence and subsequent occupation of the territories have little to do with Islamic jihadism. I don’t know how he would prove this, but it seems to me that the best, and perhaps only way to find out if he is right is to reach political accommodation between Palestinians and Israelis. Both Sullivan and I would concede, apparently, that jihadism will not vanish upon the establishment of such an accommodation. It might even get worse. I still don’t see how that dire possibility proves much, one way or the other, as regards the effect of the festering sore that is the territories on the overall mental health of Islam.

I happened to read, because of bhtv, Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog recently, and Leiter takes a swipe at Wieseltier. Leiter’s gripe with Wieseltier is that Wieseltier went to Oxford to study philosophy and claims to have been disenchanted with the state of the discipline as he found it at Oxford. Leiter’s take is that analytic philosophy was too difficult and rigorous for Wieseltier. From my point of view, I think there are good reasons to reject the analytic approach in its institutionalized form, although one has to confess that not everyone is cut out to be a pure logician, in the tradition of Frege and Principia Mathematica. But then most analytic philosophy bears only a distant relation to that tradition. I would agree with the proposition that a philosopher should know something about Frege and the Principia, or Peano, even if he is incapable of writing at all originally in that field.

I like Wieseltier’s “look.” Maybe he is a poseur, maybe not. This particular piece is all too reminiscent of the row between Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn.

I also thought this was a good diavlog, and I did not know that Matthew Yglesias is Jewish until now. I’m a bit confused about what Loury’s quandary is regarding the “juxtaposition” between Jewish and Afro-American politics in America. Here is the big difference. The Jews give a lot of money to candidates and to PACS. The Jews receive almost no money that I am aware of from government, at least not qua Jews. There are privately funded Jewish charities that tend to Jews in America. There is very little legislation devoted to the treatment of the Jewish minority. In short, the Jews in America are very well assimilated now, and extraordinarily successful financially. So I don’t see any big mystery here. And please, everyone, I am speaking here descriptively, I’m not casting aspersions on anyone, although I do think, as does Yglesias, apparently, that the role of the organized Jewish community in influencing US policy towards Israel has been far from constructive. And one of the reasons for this is the bullying and hectoring one gets from people like Wieseltier.

More on the ungovernability of the USA

This front-page article in yesterday’s NYT is highly relevant:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/17/bu…idlock.html?em

The reason I think the American political system is broken is its failure to deal with the fundamental fiscal and economic problems facing the nation. That’s the symptom. So what are the causes?

Health care costs are a big part of the problem. This has been known for at least thirty years. I gave an oral report to a business school class about a long essay by Peter Peterson having to do with long-term deficits in Social Security and Medicare in 1982 or so. Now we also have global warming to deal with, as well as large and growing imbalances in the distribution of wealth and income and stagnating wages, and all of this quite apart from the acute financial crisis.

One way of looking at things is that the electorate wants a free lunch and thinks that it is available. So the electorate makes things impossible for elected officials. Another way of looking at things is to say that in a republic things should not work that way, that the elected officials are supposed to be an elite that should look out for the nation and educate the electorate, if it needs educating (and there can be no doubt whatever that it does).

I don’t think one needs much more evidence than the existence of Sarah Palin to prove that the republic is deeply sick. That some people who pretend to be serious (e.g. William Kristol) defend her only serves to make the point more starkly. The only thing worse than the attempt by elitists to plan society rationally is to leave things to the irrational crowd and utter morons like Palin, in the incredibly stupid hope or expectation that no government is better than ill conceived government. The only place where there is a wondrous self-regulating organism of human beings is on Fantasy Island.

Ledocs World Gets New Web Address

Through the wonders of information technology that are mostly opaque to me, this blog should now be available at the address “http://ledocs.net”, or, more simply, “ledocs.net.”  If you are using the old address at wordpress.com, you should be redirected to the new, sleek, hip, very wonderful address.  Now, all the incredible free content of this blog that has been sixty years in the making will be available worldwide to users simply by typing “ledocs.net” into their browser’s address window.  This is a matter of some gratification to me, because I have been paying for the domain name “ledocs.net” since 2004, without having put the name to any use until today.  Let us hope that the investment pays off.

Jonathan Chait – the US is ungovernable

…And this from TNR’s Jonathan Chait, on the ungovernability of the United States of America.  This guy Chait is starting to grow on me.

www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/america-ungovernable

What are Obama’s core economic beliefs?

This just in from John Judis at “The New Republic,” Obama’s sympathies are really with Wall Street, not with Main Street. But I object to Judis’s own gloss on the old chestnut of comparing very high compensation in the business world with the very high compensation of athletes and entertainers. Judis makes the wrong argument. His argument is that banking is not analogous to professional sports for various reasons. This might in principle be a reasonable argument, but I don’t think that it is. The better argument is to say that the very high salaries are not justified anywhere, not in business, not in professional sports, not in entertainment. That is my position. One has to rebut the whole presumption of payment according to product that undergirds the free-market ideology. “The market” makes all kinds of crazy distributive decisions. The people who happen to benefit most tend to benefit from particular regulatory constraints and barriers to entry that are the opposite of a free market.

I just heard Woody Allen say to Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” that he never understood why entertainers are paid so much compared to teachers, but he confesses that he has never protested about this fact, since he has profited greatly from it. In any event, one has to distinguish two claims from one another: (i) market prices are just; (ii) market prices are efficient, or Pareto-optimal, meaning that any change in market-determined prices would produce a lower GDP. A lot of people seem to believe (ii), without believing (i). Obama may be such a person. I believe neither (i) nor (ii). If we cut the after-tax income of the highest paid people in America, say anyone with over $1,000,000 in annual wage and salary income, by 50%, the people themselves would not suffer much, and the economy as a whole might benefit. It’s not as though people would stop working extremely hard to become movie stars, professional athletes, CEO’s, and investment bankers, if the compensation at the top of the competitive pyramid in these fields were cut in half. I don’t think it would affect the pool of people interested in these professions, except perhaps very marginally, and I don’t think it would affect the effort expended by the pool.

Judis’s article does raise a very troubling doubt about Obama’s principles, however, and I am certainly coming to call into question my enthusiasm for the man.

http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/they-aint-main-street

Super Bowl XLIV

We watched the Super Bowl live from France, so the game ended at about 4:30 in the morning.  It was a very good game to watch.  I used to be a huge fan of the San Francisco 49ers and knew a lot about professional football.  Today, I watch very few games.  This year,  I saw only the two conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

The color commentator on ESPN America was Joe Theismann.  The Wikipedia article about Theismann identifies him as “the most hated announcer in National Football League history” and goes on to give examples of questionable things he has said in the course of a long announcing career.

Theismann was very vocal in opposing the decision of the Saints’ coach to go for the touchdown on fourth down at the Colts’ goal line towards the end of the first half.  It seemed obvious to me at the time that the coach had made the right decision.  At the time, the Saints were trailing 10-3.  Assume that the Saints successfully attempt a field goal.  The score is then 10-6, but they have to kick off to the Colts, who would have had about 1:45 left in the first half to score.  The likelihood that the Colts would get at least a field goal at that point was pretty high.  There was also a strong possibility that they would drive for a touchdown.  The worst-case scenario in attempting to score the touchdown was that the Colts would get the ball at their goal line.  The likelihood of driving for a score from that position is low.  As things turned out, of course, the Colts got the ball at their goal line, went three and out, punted, and the Saints drove for a field goal of their own.  They were much better off than they would have been had they kicked a field goal when Thiesmann wanted them to, because the Colts had their final possession and did not score.  The Saints had therefore netted three points at the end of the half when, if they had kicked a field goal, they might well have netted nothing (had the Colts driven for a field goal on their final possession of the half) or have been –4 at the end of the half, if the Colts had driven for a touchdown.  Theismann made no comment at any point in the game to indicate that his initial reaction to the Saints’ attempting to score on fourth down might have been overstated, or even a miscalculation.

Drew Brees was very impressive, obviously.  His completion percentage was off the charts.  The onsides kick to begin the second half was a stroke of genius.  Clearly, the coach of the Saints thought that his team deserved to be underdogs in the game and that he had to take risks in order to win.  That’s what he did, and it worked out well.