Steven Levitt's Morality

Steven Levitt is taking a lot of online abuse for this passage on his blog a few days ago:

I’ve never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other with respect to a particular gray-area activity. Not that my opinion matters at all, but despite strong economic arguments in favor of drug legalization, the idea has always made me a little queasy. Conversely, although logic tells me that abortion as practiced in the U.S. doesn’t seem like such a great idea (see the end of the abortion chapter in Freakonomics for our arguments on this one), something in my heart makes me sympathetic to legalized abortion.

It wasn’t until the U.S. government’s crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?

If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind those activities being illegal.

This is, logically, pretty lame. If I had a daughter, I probably wouldn't want her to get a tattoo, play videogames all day, or pursue a career in the WWF. But neither I nor Levitt would think even for a moment that tattooing, videogame playing, or WWF wrestling should be outlawed.

Still, I think Levitt performs a valuable service here. Chattering class types tend to intellectualize morality, but the vast majority of people view it through a lens much closer to Levitt's "would I mind if my daughter did it?" heuristic. And one of the reasons for this is that ordinary people often have a clearer view of human nature than chatterers do. There are lots of activities we AP-class types find acceptable — drug use, gambling, etc. — because we sort of assume that everyone has the same level of impulse control that we do. And if you have good impulse control, then drugs and gambling are just pleasant ways of filling in your free time. And even if you don't have good impulse control, you probably have a decent support network to help you if things turn pear shaped. These things may have their problems, but they're manageable problems.

But if you're not part of the AP-class cohort, there's a pretty good chance that your impulse control isn't quite as good as all that, and an excellent chance that even if it is, you're keenly aware that good impulse control isn't exactly universal. And that means your view of things like gambling and drug use are considerably dimmer. You'd just as soon your daughter didn't get involved with that stuff because you've seen too often the effect it has on people with moderate education, moderate to poor impulse control, moderate to low incomes, and non-great support networks. Logically there might be a case for a lenient attitude, but your real-life experience tell you that it's a ticking time bomb best kept under tight control.

This is just something to think about, not some grand pronouncement about moral calculus. But it's worth keeping in mind sometimes that the broad working and middles classes often have different moral sentiments than us well-off, highly verbal types, and it's not always because they go to church more than us or anything like that. It's because they live in different communities and this stuff affects them differently than it does us. As always, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Republicans are Depressed

Mike Allen reports on the current mental health of the Republican Party establishment. Nickel version: it's not good:

Interviews this week with longtime party activists and strategists made clear that many in the Republican establishment are unnerved by a field led by Mitt Romney, who could have trouble confronting Obama on health reform; Tim Pawlenty, who has yet to ignite excitement; Jon Huntsman, who may be too moderate to get the nomination; and Newt Gingrich, weighed down by personal baggage and a sense that he is a polarizing figure from the 1990s.

Despairing Republican lobbyists say their colleagues don’t ask, “Who do you like?” but instead, “Who do we back?”

“It’s not that they’re up in arms,” said a central player in the GOP money machine. “It’s just that they’re depressed.”

So the question is, will 2012 be the Republican version of 1972 or the Republican version of 1984? They could nominate a base hero like Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich and go down in epic flames. Or they could nominate a worthy timeserver like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty and go down in flames.

Or, of course, they could pray for some kind of gigantic global disaster — maybe an economic collapse, an oil spike, or a drawn-out hostage crisis — in which case they can win with anybody. That seems like a pretty weak hope, but right now the fever dreams of the GOP base are so debilitating that it's hard to see them coming together and beating Barack Obama any other way.

Quote of the Day: Truth Is Libel

From Newt Gingrich, after two days spent furiously rowing back his Meet the Press attack on Paul Ryan's Medicare plan:

Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.

You have to give the guy credit for stones, I guess. On Sunday, he called Ryan's plan "right-wing social engineering" and said he was opposed to it. Within hours he was getting hammered by just about every conservative luminary in the country and watching his presidential campaign go up in smoke. So first he tried to pretend that NBC host David Gregory had somehow tricked him, even though Gregory's question was a pretty straightforward softball, and Gingrich's answer was obviously a considered one. Then Gingrich explained that his language had probably been a wee bit "too strong." Then he blamed the liberal media for taking his comments "out of context." Then he suggested that his views were "evolving," and the press really needed to keep up. Then he "clarified" that what he really supported was a voluntary version of the Ryan plan that could be implemented right now, instead of 10 years from now. Then he called Paul Ryan to apologize. Finally, tonight, having apparently convinced himself that 48 hours of abject abasement had literally erased what he said on Sunday, he declared that anyone who accurately quotes his Sunday statement in the future is a liar.

That's impressive, even for Newt. But you know what's really impressive? He's demanding that his Sunday comments be officially declared oldthink even though he still doesn't support Ryan's plan. Chutzpah, baby!

National Journal's Clifford Marks goes looking for evidence that the chattering classes are chattering a lot more about the deficit these days, and he finds it: mentions of the deficit are way up in the country's five biggest newspapers. The explanation is pretty simple: "The broadening gap demonstrates just how effective conservatives have been at changing the narrative of economic policy from one dominated by talk of fiscal stimulus to one now in lockstep with notions of fiscal austerity."

This is neither surprising nor, in a sense, unwarranted. Republicans won a landslide election last November and several deficit commissions finally presented their plans to the public in December. What is unwarranted, however, is the yellow line in the chart, the one that shows mentions of unemployment: it's down to about 50, which means about two mentions per week in each newspaper.

Got that? In each of our five biggest newspapers, in the entire newspaper, there are now two mentions of unemployment per week. So that's that. Nobody cares anymore. Politicians don't talk about unemployment and the press doesn't report about it. If you're out of work — and 9% of the country still is — you're on your own.

Potatoes and the Constitution

Michele Bachmann, a person we are assured is a serious candidate for president if she decides to run, is upset that the federal government is thinking about seriously limiting the use of potatoes in school lunches. "Where in the #Constitution does it say the fed. government should regulate potatoes in school lunches?" she tweets. "It doesn’t."

Well, no, it doesn't. Nor does it say that highways should be built out of concrete instead of asphalt, or that naval vessels should be powered by nuclear reactors instead of sails. Matt Yglesias rolls his eyes:

This is emblematic of two horrible intellectual habits that have overtaken the current populist right. One is the incredibly slipshod constitutional law here. Obviously the federal government has the authority to specify for what purposes federal grant money can be used. Obviously. How else could it work? The other is the tendency to regard any existing profit stream as a form of property. Banks are entitled to their federal subsidies to offer student loans. For-profit colleges are entitled to their own student loan subsidy stream. Health care providers are entitled to unlimited wasteful spending at federal expense. Potato growers are entitled to their school lunch money.

This is why one should never take conservatives seriously when they claim to favor free enterprise. They don't. What they generally favor is pro-business policies, which are very decidedly not the same thing. It's entirely understandable that banks, colleges, healthcare providers, and potato growers want to keep all the taxpayer dollars that happen to flow their way, but it has nothing at all to do with free enterprise. Supporting these policies likewise has nothing to do with free enterprise. It has to do with currying favor with existing rent seekers and campaign contributors.

Both parties do this, of course, but Republicans do it on a considerably grander and more self-righteous scale than Democrats. And as Michele Bachmann demonstrates, a considerably more ignorant and historically preposterous one too.

Where the Bill of Rights Goes to Die

So here's the story: police in Lexington, Kentucky, were chasing after some guy who'd just scored some crack. He went into an apartment building, but police didn't know what door he had gone into. So, smelling marijuana under one door, they pounded loudly and announced their presence. But they guessed wrong. It was just some random dude doing drugs, not the guy they were after. The dude, unsurprisingly, panicked when police suddenly started pounding on his door and tried to dump the evidence. Police, hearing this, busted down his door, arrested him, and eventually sent him to prison for 11 years.

But let's back up. The police busted down his door? Don't you need a search warrant for that kind of thing? Answer: no, not if there are "exigent circumstances" that make it urgent that police get in. For example, if a suspect is busily getting rid of evidence.

But back up again. This particular guy, it turns out, had actually done nothing to attract police attention in the first place, and the only reason he was flushing his drugs away was because police were pounding on his door. This is pretty predictable behavior, which means that the police created the exigent circumstances themselves and then used that as an excuse to bust down a door instead of getting a search warrant. Surely that's a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

Well, maybe it was last week, but it's not anymore thanks to eight Supreme Court justices who ruled yesterday that this behavior is fine and dandy. As Scott Lemieux says, the war on drugs is "where the Bill of Rights goes to die":

Dismayingly, and demonstrating again that the Supreme Court essentially lacks a real liberal wing, the decision was 8-1, with both of Obama’s appointees in the majority....The key problem with the case, as [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg convincingly argues, is that it’s the latest example of the drift of the exigency exception away from actual emergencies and toward the mere convenience of the police. If the police have time to obtain a warrant and there isn’t an actual emergency, they should be required to obtain one. But when security in the home faces the War (On Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs, it generally loses.

But don't worry. This will never happen to a law-abiding person like you. Nothing to get in a lather about.

Shortly before California's 2003 special election for governor, the Los Angeles Times reported that a number of women had accused Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping and various other sexual advances. Arnold vaguely fessed up to some bad behavior in the past, but said, "I don't remember things that I've done or said 20 years ago. I don't remember things that I've done 30 years ago." The Times series was widely viewed as a thinly veiled hit piece scheduled to run just days before the election in order to ruin Schwarzenegger's chances.

That was never true. The reason the stories ran so late is because the special election was only six weeks long. If it had been any ordinary election, the Times would have spent far more time on its reporting and the story would likely have broken months before election day. In the event, though, the accusations were out there and the Times did heroic work putting together a hugely complex story under tight deadline pressure. As far as I know, the accuracy of their reporting hasn't been seriously challenged to this day.

And what about Arnold? He insisted that this stuff was so far in the dim past that he could barely remember it. But it wasn't. Today we learn that he had cheated on his wife and had a child out of wedlock just a few years before. His megawatt-smile denials were pure pap, and if knowledge of his affair had been public it's almost a dead certainty that the recall would have failed and Gray Davis would have remained governor. The car tax would have stayed in place, no bonds would have been issued to make up for it, and California's deficit problems would have been less than half as bad as they turned out to be under Schwarzenegger.

That's what comes of running a politically motivated snap election with weird rules in six weeks: you don't really know what you're getting. In the end, the Times was right about Schwarzenegger, and his folksy boys-will-be-boys denials were lies. We've paid a pretty high price for that.

Translating BHL on DSK

Michael O'Hare translates Bernard-Henri Lévy's defense of Dominique Strauss-Kahn so you don't have to soil your soul reading the whole thing yourself:

DSK is my friend, and I am Bernard-Henri Lévy. How dare these people of no importance treat him as though he has been credibly accused of a violent crime! He has a wife, with whom I, BHL, have dined, at parties with witty and charming Important People, and to speak publicly of any of this is victimizing her. To show my loyalty to this member of my privileged and superb tribe, I am going to make up nonsense about how rooms are cleaned in New York hotels, and assert, in my most magisterial way, that the US criminal justice system has a presumption of guilt. I have been to America, and I know about these things. The idea that a chambermaid is permitted in that vile country to accuse a Man of Great Importance! That a servant is permitted to trip up the great enterprise of my beloved French socialism! That if my seductive, charming, friend DSK, who loves the ladies, especially his own three, has forced himself on women they are supposed to be seen as victims – the nerve!

If you do want to soil your soul, the whole thing is here.

Quote of the Day: Pro Blogging Tips

From Karl Smith, explaining why a post of his was less than stellar:

It was also late at night, post-Ambien and by the time I hit post I had forgotten what I had intended to write about in the first place. This is how blogging is often done.

I assure you that Karl is going to get a stern letter from the guild disciplinary committee for exposing professional secrets. George Will is very upset about this.

Why Obama Negotiates

Why is Barack Obama allowing Republicans to make demands on him as a condition of raising the debt ceiling? The other day I suggested that it was because he wants Republicans to make demands on him. And why is that? Partly I think it's because he genuinely wants to address spending levels but wants Republican cover for it. Greg Sargent says the other half of the answer lies in Obama's desire to win back independents:

As David Axelrod said in a recent interview with bloggers, after the midterms Obama’s advisers concluded that they needed to get back to “first principles” and recapture what’s been “central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook.” Axelrod defined Obama’s first principles as follows: “you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.”

It seems clear that Obama and his advisers think laying down a firm marker — playing the game the way Republicans do — makes him sound like just another Washington politician. Saying “no,” as Krugman puts it, risks miring Obama in the same mud as all the rest of the partisan mud-slingers on both sides. The health care wars left Obama splattered with that mud. Signaling openness to compromise at the outset while articulating general principles as opposed to bottom lines — whatever it does for the Dems’ negotiating position — is central to Obama’s political identity and is the best way to recapture the aura that propelled him into the White House in the first place. It might be called “Beer Summit-ism.”

I think this is about right. My guess is that Obama views the lame duck compromise last year as both a policy and a political win. And I think he's probably right. Likewise, he also views some modest combination of spending cuts and revenue increases (probably via reductions in tax expenditures) as both a policy and a political win, but by making Republicans go first he gets cover for his left flank and gets to seem like the reasonable compromiser. Lefties won't like it but their grumbling will be mostly pro forma, and independents will be impressed.

And Republicans would be wise to go ahead and agree to something. It might be a political win for Obama, but frankly, they don't seem especially serious about trying to win the presidency next year. Might as well give Dems a political win now when it doesn't really make much difference.