September 28, 2005

Finding a form   {Comments: 0}

The pantoum (the OED actually likes pantun -- it's from the Malaysian, but the form is frequently imitated in French and English) has a little trick to it -- besides just being in the form abab bcbc cdcd and so on, there's also a division between the first two and the second two lines of each stanza, so you get this bifurcation across stanzas. Hollander (in Rhyme's Reason) calls it maddening, but really it's what gives the poem so much metaphoric power. Also, it makes the poem easier to craft (at least from the standpoint of getting some sense out of the lines) because you can focus on all the first pairs (of all the stanzas) first, and then all the second pairs.

One thing about this form irritates me though -- it's the lack of symmetry (this is the same thing, by the way, that bugs me about the villanelle, although that's an even less symmetrical form, and therefore less irritating in its failure to be symmetrical) at the end of the poem. You have abab bcbc cdcd dede efef fafa -- except the order of the a's in the last stanza is different from the order in the first. The point of this is to make the first line reprise as the last, but it destroys the potential for a loop. (Is a loop even symmetry? I suppose it's a kind of rotational symmetry.)

September 26, 2005

Basic protections   {Comments: 3}

The Head Start reauthorization process has taken a turn for the worse with the recent House vote to allow privately operated (but publicly funded) Head Start centers to make hiring decisions based on applicants' religious affiliation. I have no idea whether this provision will make it through the Senate or conference, but it has the feel of 1) a sort of line in the sand on legislative vs judicial power just as the Roberts nomination is being considered and 2) a poison pill that can sink some of the other provisions in the bill that the Republicans have grudgingly agreed to -- ie the reauthorization of Head Start and the suspension of National Reporting System testing.

I'm actually surprised at how little play this move has gotten, given the huge church-state issues involved. But this church-state business isn't even the biggest thing going on here; Head Start reauthorization is huge -- it critically affects almost a million underprivileged children in this country, at a time when poverty and opportunity ought to be at the forefront of our minds. And Head Start works; a recent federal study concluded that it had a significant effect both on children's pre-literacy and their health. Let's hope this isn't forgotten in the debate over freedom from religious discrimination any subsequent policy haggling.

September 24, 2005

Allegiance   {Comments: 0}

PG asks about how the (violent) insertion of under God into the pledge changes its cadence. I agree with the bit she quotes from Florence King, but I'll take the point even further: there's a private joke, I think -- and if not there's certainly a tremendous and poetic irony -- in the positioning of that under God, dividing the line as it does just before the word indivisible. It's an effect that nicely echoes the irony of a pledge of allegiance that serves, by virtue of its text, to divide a nation. So on that purely aesthetic basis, I'm all for keeping it in there...

September 21, 2005

What doesn't kill you   {Comments: 11}

A question in response to Matt Yglesias and Will Baude on Davis-Bacon and Section 8: How does increasing workers' pay make unions more powerful? I guess you could make the argument that giving anybody anything makes them more powerful when they ask for the next thing -- although in this case the status quo is the prevailing rate (under Davis-Bacon) so it's actually a question of whether wages should remain the same. Certainly getting paid at the higher rate is a good thing for workers, but I don't see how it really increases their political sway, unless they use those marginal dollars strictly for political ends. But it's not as though this money were being paid directly to the unions -- we're talking about individuals' wages here, and individuals' preferences.

But in any case, doesn't increasing the standard wage the government pays actually decrease the unions' power, since it makes entry by non-union parties more likely?

September 20, 2005

Looking for an angry fix   {Comments: 1}

Like Kerim, I've been looking around for an alternative to the Times, in my case not so much because of Krugman (whom I've never liked much, at least in column form), but becuase it has long been my first source for national and international news. I'll probably end up reading the Post more, although I've always felt the coverage there was too focused on Washington (go figure) and seriously lacking in the arts and culture department.

I was blown away, though, by the appearance of links to blogs on their articles. This approach seems to be exactly the opposite from that of the Times; that is, they're moving toward a more inclusive model of media profitability, rather than looking for ways to limit and control their readership. I don't know which model will be more profitable in the near term, but the Post seems sure to build readers in the blogosphere, since bloggers now have a huge incentive to link to Post articles over articles elsewhere. The strategy reflects a sophisticated understanding of how blogs work, and I hope it pays off.

I suppose it would be too much to try to attribute this brilliant populist move to the return of Michael Kinsley.

Irrelevant variations   {Comments: 2}

I don't know how I missed this, but the 5.5-0.5 defeat of Grandmaster Michael Adams earlier this summer by the chess computer Hydra was a major event for chess, and probably for the field of artificial intelligence as well. It likely signals the end of the whole "man vs. machine" phenomenon in chess, because after this it's hard to see, given this result, how even the best players will be able to compete anymore.

What impresses me most about this latest computer is its ability to "prune" irrelevant variations before they are analyzed; whereas Deep Blue analyzded every single possibility, no matter how unlikely or disadvantageous, Hydra dismisses unlikely paths before that analysis gets started, which helps speed up the process and allow more in-depth investigation where it's more likely to pay off. This moves chess computing in the direction of pattern recognition, so that it more closely resembles a human player's thought process (except, of course, in terms of the available computing power).

September 19, 2005

Thoughts on reparations   {Comments: 163}

Steve at BTD responds to this crazy post comparing (I think) Bush's hurricane relief effort to reparations:

Labeling hurricane relief "reparations" is a disservice to both sides of the reparations debate. It sidesteps the aims of the pro-reparations movement (those who Cobb suggests want their "pound of flesh"). Meanwhile, if welfare counts, the anti-reparations crowd [has] an argument that the bill is already paid.
This last part may or not represent Steve's view, but I have a hard time seeing how anyone could even begin compare welfare payments with reparations for over a hundred years of state-sanctioned slavery -- not so much because of questions about whether "welfare counts," but just because of the vastness of the damages relative to welfare payouts. Take, for example, this estimate by Nobel prize winning economist Robert Fogel:
[W]hat was the financial cost borne by the slaves themselves? One measure is the difference between slaves' wages and those of free workers with the same skills. Mr Fogel reckons that, between 1780 and 1860, just before the American civil war, slaves were paid (in food, shelter and so on) around 10% less than similar free workers. He estimates a cumulative bill for slaves' expropriated wages of $24 billion in 1860.

Compound interest on this sum for 142 years has a massive effect. A risk-free interest rate of 6% a year, which is what Mr Fogel estimates is the long-term rate, brings the cost to $97 trillion, more than nine times the size of America's economy today. Awarding interest of just 3% a year would cut the total bill to $1.6 trillion, not far from damages cited in the current lawsuit. These figures are merely for lost wages.

Needless to say, $97 trillion dwarfs the sum total of all welfare payments ever made by the US government, and of course those payments have gone to plenty of folks who aren't descended from slaves.

A couple observations. First, I think it's odd that those calling for reparations have framed the issue in just that way, particularly when what they're asking for is actually only the present value of unpaid wages. Using the term reparations makes it sound like the goal is to repair this great historical sin; a better term would make the dispute about wages and the basic fairness of being able to pass on the product of your life's work to your grandchildren. Surely this notion would have some political traction at a time when Congress is hellbent on repealing the estate tax.

Of course, no argument will have sufficient rhetorical force to extract those trillions in unpaid wages, to say nothing of punitive damages. The numbers are just so laughably huge that it would destroy an America that has (despite the madness of yesterday) continued to grow. This, in my view, is the only convincing reason not to pay damages for slavery -- that some sins (the Holocaust, the near annihilation of Native Americans) are so horrific that there's no way to correct or atone for them, and practical steps such as the development of conscience and collective memory have to suffice. That, and a tireless commitment to equal opportunity.

Don't you see how late they're reacting?   {Comments: 4}

1. Ogged seeks input about the relative cheapness of two scenarios; I'm reminded of one evening in Jaipur (that's in India) a few years ago when my travelling companion howled, stomped, and spat on the ground to protest the fact that we'd just been overcharged the equivalent $0.10 by our bicycle rickshaw driver. In fairness to my friend (and in case he's reading!), I think this behavior was the culmination of several days of overcharged negotiation, rather than pure, unadulterated cheapness. But.

2. Like Will Baude, I'm amazed to find that 20 years have passed since the death of Italo Calvino -- not because I ever had any handle on the dates involved, but because I considered his work so fresh and relevant (!) when I read it in the 90s. It's still gorgeous and Important, but also more distant now.

3. Gapers Block links to a fascinating piece about a Chicago area businessman/inventor's efforts to reengineer the screw.

4. And somehow that reimagined screw seems related to this juicy piece on semicolons: there's a quick analysis of what your semicolon use says about your writing style; advice on usage from the evil Fred Barnes, the righteous Michael Kinsley, and any number of other editors and writers; and broad statements about the logical and sociological implications of the semicolon's declining popularity. I have to wonder, though, whether it isn't the double dash that requires more critical attention -- after all, it does seem to get more use these days, and guidelines for its usage are at least as vague as those for the semicolon.

5. Finally, this Metafilter post collects some valiant efforts by hip hop artists to create and remix songs with audio from the Katrina fallout; stALLio! also has some good stuff. If you ask me, the themesong for the whole episode ought to be 911 Is a Joke.

September 18, 2005

The shock of the new   {Comments: 0}

I've been tweaking the site this afternoon -- the major change is that I've implemented an inline trackback functionality in the comment section. For some reason it doesn't seem to be working for all posts (eg see archived posts for early 2004), but it does seem to be working for recent posts, which is the important thing. I have also reopened all the old comment threads, which were closed as a precaution against runaway spam before I upgraded to MT 3.2. This should help avoid the confusion found in the comments to this recent post.

September 16, 2005

Purely for the pleasure   {Comments: 2}

Sean Carroll (who's moved, by the way, over to Cosmic Variance) takes a closer look at the claim that airplanes are safer than cars and concludes that a lot of information can be hidden by statistics (cf lies, damn lies). His discussion reminds me of the claim my wife frequently makes that you're more likely to get in an accident close to home (the context for which is my laziness in putting on my seatbelt for very short trips). I always respond that if this claim is even true, it's probably just the trivial result of the fact that most of your trips either begin or end at home. Of course, my response isn't much of an argument for not wearing a seatbelt close to home, since that would mean a very large number of seatbeltless trips. And the whole discussion kind of skirts the issue of seat belts and short trips.

September 14, 2005

Markets in everything?   {Comments: 0}

Mark Tapscott is concerned that the arrangement between the New York Times and the Washington Post to share front pages each night before the papers go to press is collusion, as it would be "in any other industry." But the press isn't just any other industry -- it differs from other industries in at least two fundamental ways that I can think of. First of all, in order for a democracy (and, incidentally, a free market) to function, people must have accurate information about their government and the state of things. This public interest is so crucial to the fabric of our society that it should trump the kind of market concerns Mark brings up. The news is not just another product; it must be present for our society to function.

Also, since the whole point of the press is to propagate information, it's hard to see how an exchange of that same information can be considered collusion. Because the press deals in information, sharing sensitive information doesn't quite mean the same thing that it does in other industrial contexts. How can the front page of your paper be a trade secret when you plan to release it to the entire country in three hours?

To be sure, I can think of reasons why it might still be bad for the Times and the Post to pool resources like this -- the practice could, for example, lead to groupthink and therefore result in less information actually reaching the public. But this is an altogether different problem from the market-disrupting collusion Mark is so concerned about. [via Instapundit]

Any subject of your choice   {Comments: 0}

Google's new entry into blog search is far faster than Technorati, which is probably enough by itself to compel many people to switch over, given how overburdened Technorati seems to be these days. From the few searches I've made today, it looks like Google is less comprehensive, but presumably that will change, given Google's unparalleled resources (and of course, this is the first day).

But for me the most important difference is Google Blog Search's complete lack of transparency in the search and ranking criteria. The beautiful thing about Technorati is that relationships between blogs and are made explicit, so it's easy to see clusters and communities and conversations. Presumably this kind of information is contained within the default "by relevance" search option, but by putting it below the surface, Google gives users less useful information. Why?

This isn't the first time I've complained about the lack of transparency in a Google algorthim, and I wonder if earlier attempts to exclude blogs from general search will somehow end up being justified by this new offering. I hope not -- that would be a crushing blow for individual speech.

Having to drown like a rat   {Comments: 0}

When I heard that a large number of people had died in a nursing home, I wasn't surprised because I had also heard (on television) a story about a nursing home staff that had to abandon half the residents after repeated and failed attempts to get the authorities (whoever they were or should have been) to send help. In that case there were 70 patients, 35 of whom were left to die, apparently to save the other 35. The numbers in these two stories fit together, but there's no mention in the Guardian of patients who survived at St Rita's, so I'm not sure whether I've heard two sides of the same story or two different stories.

Meanwhile there's this disturbing story about a hospital where some patients were (arguably) euthanized by doctors who felt they could not make it out alive. Obviously the decisions that had to be made were unthinkable, and my inclination is to give doctors the benefit of the doubt. Still, the article is strangely incomplete. I'm still confused after reading a couple times through what the specific justification was for euthanizing these patients -- was it the inability to evacuate, the lack of power, the armed gangs looting the pharmacy?

It's hard to know what to make of these stories, in part because the details aren't clear, in part because it's so hard to imagine the horrors of these circumstances. What is clear is that the breakdown of law and order wasn't limited to people who were looting grocery stores and Wal-Marts. Good people in every context imaginable had to make decisions that stretched the bounds of morality. It's going to be difficult in the aftermath to reach any kind of legal or social resolution that scans with our everyday experience.

September 13, 2005

The most costly spills   {Comments: 0}

1. Via Taegan Goddard I see that Michael Kinsley is leaving the LATimes "on a bitter note." I don't know what his ambitions are these days, but I can't imagine wanting to part with him as a publisher -- he's one of the freshest voices around, and the only guy I can think of who's played such a shaping role for MSM twice.

2. Will Baude links to this explanation of the CTA's food and drink policy. After reading Ms. Brown's commentary, though, I'm not convinced there's actually going to be a policy of enforcement here. We'll see.

3. This pedometer is insanely useful for plotting running routes.

4. Via Metafilter (which btw has been absolutely glorious on Katrina), here's a great piece on the Times-Picayune's continuing coverage of the hurricane. Maybe reporting isn't as dangerous as policing at a time like this, but the dedication of the Times-Picayune staff has got to be one of the most heroic notes of this catastrophe.

September 12, 2005

Seamless access   {Comments: 0}

The New York Times has decided to start charging readers for certain premium content online, which mostly consists of material available for free right now:

Subscribers to TimesSelect will have exclusive online access to many of our most influential columnists in Op-Ed, Business, New York/Region and Sports. In addition to reading the columns, TimesSelect subscribers can also engage with our columnists through video interviews and Web-only postings.
It would seem to be the move anticipated here, although I still don't see a strategic connection between this and their acquisition of, which is disappointing. Not having seen their books, I'll withhold judgment about whether the move is a mistake from a business standpoint (although I suspect Adam Penenberg's arguments are transferable). Certainly it will diminish the influence of star columnists like Krugman and Brooks, which will in turn reduce the site's clout in the political blogosphere. And of course, to the extent that quality reporting is made less available, the blogosphere (which mostly has to rely on MSM for original reporting) will suffer.

Please note that no subscriptions are (or ever will be) required for the influential commentary you read here at locussolus!

Nothing can salve the wounds like money   {Comments: 0}

Bush has removed pay scale regulations in order to better deal with the national emergency:

The Davis-Bacon Act, passed in 1931 during the Great Depression, sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal contracts by requiring contractors to pay the prevailing or average pay in the region. Suspension of the act will allow contractors to pay lower wages. Many Republicans have opposed Davis-Bacon, charging that it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy to unions.
This might make sense in some other contexts, but when such a huge geographical area is hit and residents are likely going to be doing their own rebuiling, doesn't it just penalize the victims? No doubt the effect will be to discourage residents from returning.

I'm having a hard time understanding the logic here, especially when it goes against the smart (if almost distastefully political) strategy outlined near the end of this article. Maybe the move is predicated on the assumption that rebuilding contracts will be filled by out-of-town contractors? Either way, it seems like a large political error -- either it misses a great opportunity to get local people involved in the reconstruction and allow them to benefit from the contracts, or it takes from the pocketbooks of local workers. I suppose the explanation is probably more ideological than anything else, an attempt by Bush ("we're problem-solvers") to cut through bureaucratic red tape right when the perception of the federal buereaucracy is worst. Unfortunately, Bush's idea of red tape is the regulations that protect the very people who were harmed here.

(I don't claim to have a sophisticated understanding of Davis-Bacon, but critics who claim it prevents the government from getting fair market price on labor are confused. The obvious problem addressed by the Act is that the government can use its enormous size and status to use extort lower wages than would be otherwise possible in a market setting. The Act addresses this problem by requiring the government contractors pay the "prevailing average pay" in a region -- ie a labor price that has been set by the market.)

September 11, 2005

Things'll never be the same   {Comments: 2573}

Just a quick post to let you know that over this weekend I've upgraded to MT 3.2 and switched from Berkeley to mySQL. This might make spam management easier (although I doubt it -- I'd already installed a number of plugins to tame the beast), and there are some other features I intend to take advantage soon of with a couple minor design changes. Unfortunately, a number of comments were lost in the transfer, mostly (I believe) from early 2004. I anticipated this problem and waited longer than I wanted to upgrade while researching alternatives, but I didn't have any luck. To anyone whose comments were lost: sorry!

September 8, 2005

More disposed to suffer   {Comments: 14}

In comments to this post below Sarah wonders why I'm calling for the resgination of federal executives but not local executives. I actually do think there were major failures at the local level, and that these probably ought to result in resignations, but there are a couple of qualitative differences. There were actually two catastrophes here: one was the hurricane itself, and the other was the lack of an appropriate response. Much death and destrction was wrought by the hurricane, and a lot of that might have been prevented with a better emergency plan and better execution -- this was largely the fault of the local executives, although there is also some evidence that the federal government failed to provide appropriate funding, declare a state of emergency in the appropriate locations, etc. Perhaps some of these failures can be forgiven because of the extremely low probability (see this Tyler Cowen post) of these events, and the accompanying difficulties for allocating public funding via the political system.

The other catastrophe -- the failure to respond -- was different in a couple senses. It happened over a much longer period of time, which should have effectively eliminated the problems mentioned above with low probability events -- after a few hours (and certainly no more than a day) of cable news reportage it should have been clear to crisis professionals what was happening and what was going to happen. It also seems likely that it killed far more people, or at least left them to die. There is still some question about whether the resources necessary to enter the city and address the needs there were even available, whether because they were allocated elsewhere or simply because the need overwhelmed the response structures that were in place at the time.

It seems obvious that local authorities have to shoulder much of the responsibility for the failure to anticipate and plan for the hurricane, both in the long term and in the days immediately preceding Katrina's landfall. These oversights are probably serious enough to justify some high profile resignations. But I have a hard time seeing how local authorities can be held responsible for the response -- what local government in the United States is equipped for a catastrophe that obliterates (at least in the short term) 80% of its infrastructure and changes all its thoroughfares into waterways? Once the city flooded, help on a grander scale was needed -- and yet it took 5 days to arrive.

The federal response should have come days sooner. The results of failure to act were much easier to predict than they were before the hurricane arrived. The resources were or should have been available, because for the past four years in this country we have been reconfiguring our government to deal with mass catstrophe on precisely this scale. The fact that this was a natural disaster rather than a terrorist attack might have excused some of the failure if FEMA hadn't been situated deliberately under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security. But the message coming out of these agencies and the White House that created and organized them is that the local authorities are responsible, either because they failed to keep the peace, didn't anticipate the scope of the problem, or didn't ask for help in quite the right way. I'm sorry, but that's just horseshit. The whole point of these federal agencies, and in particular the point of the Department of Homeland Security, is to coordinate the response in cases where the scale or nature of an event has made local responses impossible. At no time in recent history (inlcuding 9/11) has this been more true than it was in New Orleans last week.

At some point, Americans are going to have to decide what the purpose of the federal government is. Ever since Reagan, the dominant political ideology has been antagonistic to the very idea of federal government, and successful politicians on the national scene have all derided the government and conspicuously sought to dismantle it from the inside, to the point where it's unable to fulfill its most basic function. The result is this colossal failure, which will only serve to further erode Americans' confidence in their government.

September 7, 2005

Grand theft chopper   {Comments: 8}

Kriston has an interesting post about the psychology of evacuation holdouts, and in particular the report that some folks were afraid to be evacuated because they didn't have money to pay for a helicopter ticket. This has been a week of unimaginable things, but the idea that some Americans might think a helicopter evacuation from the End of the World is something you have to pay for just blew me away. If these individuals' expectations are that low, we have profoundly failed them.

Beyond Kriston's discussion of rational motives, PTSD, and the likely consequences of forcible evacuaion, I think it bears mentioning that some of these people simply may not trust the government's rescue efforts anymore. I've heard of one instance where an individual refused to evacuate because he didn't trust the government to provide for or even keep track of him, which given recent events seems like a perfectly rational response. Of course, if the government's credibilty really is gone, it still isn't clear whether this latest colossal failure is the cause, or instead the pattern of small indifferences that's lasted (in some cases) for generations. Maybe New Orleans will force Americans to confront this question...

The price of eggs   {Comments: 876}

I have a general question about gas prices. When gas is cheap, the prices for regular, premium, and super (or whatever the classifications are -- I only buy regular myself) differ by ten cents (eg 109/119/129). Now that gas is expensive, these different varieties differ by exactly the same amount (eg 315/325/335).

Why is this the case? It seems unlikely that the process whereby these different products are differentiated somehow costs the same regardless of the cost of oil, since they actually differ in their relative content of octane, which I suspect is derived from the oil rather than from the process (!). Obviously prices aren't set solely based on supply, but it seems like some awfully pretty math would be needed for this constant ten cent relationship to arise spontaneously.

The related question is whether consumers should buy the more expensive gas when prices are higher, because that higher octane rating costs less not in absolute terms, but relative to the price of regular gas. I guess this depends on the relative efficiency of different octane levels, which I know nothing about. Anybody have some insight into this?

Systematic application   {Comments: 0}

I found this article about indigenous Americans and technology quite provocative, although I might have been more satisfied if he'd taken a sharper/more specific stand on just what technology means. Certainly my instinctive reaction would have been that technology goes hand in hand with progress (you can't have technology without technological advancement?), and I wonder how the idea of progress would fit into his definition. I suppose part of the point of the article is that looking backwards is what creates that sensation of determined, directional progress. Is it like arguing that conditions on earth are extraordinary because they are exactly the one-in-a-zillion conditions necessary to bring forth life that looks like us, even by definition though our presence here makes any deviation from those conditions on earth impossible?

September 6, 2005

Just watching TV   {Comments: 2}

I've heard any number of people asking why the government didn't pay more attention to the media in responding to the catastrophe. Not meaning to excuse the failures in any way (which imho were inexcusable and should result in the resignation of the relevant executives -- the FEMA director, the head of Homeland Security, and the President of the United States), one of the biggest barriers to getting help where it was needed was the inability of front line responders and the authorities to communicate with each other. Obviously watching CNN isn't going to solve this problem, but it seems now that the cable-watching public may have been more informed about the situtation on the ground than the people coordinating the federal response. And of course if you think like a politician, responding directly to calls for help from Shepard Smith has the added benefit of allowing you to communicate to that cable-watching public that something is actually being done.

In talking to a friend today about the castastrophe, I was surprised that he didn't view it as anything more than the usual wall-to-wall hurricane coverage, and that he had no sense of the scale in relation to other "big stories" like for example the missing teen in Aruba or the Michael Jackson trial or even Rehnquist's death (which will probably turn out to be a far less significant event in American history). He also called me a news junkie. After my lengthy and somewhat exhasperated response, he blamed his uninformed disinterest on the media's incessant wolf-crying its inability to communicate scale -- which sounds about right.

Now, is there a deliberate policy on the part of the government to ignore media reports, for the same reasons my friend does? Michael Brown's early response to the question of why he was uninformed about certain aspects of the catastrophe was that he had obtained "factual information" on the ground; this suggests that he has some contempt there for the media. One can only speculate as to what the reasons for such an attitude might be, whether it is institution-wide, and whether it really affected the government's not-a-response last week, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that in this case those media reports could have saved lives -- that given a channelchanger and a TV set, Brownie could have done an even better job.

For me the media has really distinguished itself in its coverage of this event, despite the difficulties conveying scale I mentioned before. From the Times-Picayune's heroic coverage to the insistent on-the-scene reporting of Shepard Smith and Anderson Cooper, the media has challenged the authorities and the viewing public. Let's hope Matt Wells is right and this really represents a sea change for mainstream media.

September 3, 2005

Traditional instruments are wasteful   {Comments: 0}

Here's some great press on an old friend of mine who's right on the front line of creative digital appropriation/manipulation. He's got a great miscellaneous blog here, but the best introduction is probably this directory of freely available mp3s.

September 2, 2005

New orders   {Comments: 3}

Will Baude smartly observes that the problem of whether or not to shoot looters is at its core a question of the relevant institutions: "The basic paradox is that the more the social order is put in peril, the harder it will be to find a trustworthy and transparent group of people to save it."

I personally have been mortified by the suggestions that looters be shot by police or citizens or so-called libertarian bloggers or whoever else, first of all because the definition of looter is so unclear. Some media reports refer to those finding food in grocery stores as looters (depending, in some cases, on the color of their skin), but as Will points out the question is not just about who is a looter, but also about who gets to decide who is a looter -- and without some even handed institution in place, people will die in vain.

But even more troubling is the question of what could possibly be gained by shooting looters. Maybe some of the loot will have economic value at some point in the distant future if things get back to normal, but even then the missing items are for the most part insured (this of course doesn't make it right to take them, but it does make vigilanteism seem like a waste of effort). I have some sympathy for those who are weighing these lives against the value of law and order as an institution, but at this point restoring order as we usually think of it appears to be a lost cause, and in any case many of the laws that are on the books (against stealing food from abandoned grocery stores, for instance) don't make sense in the new context, and therefore shoulnd't be enforced.

If anything should be enforced, it's the government's directive to evacuate the city. Lethal force should be employed only to protect those who are enforcing this directive and those still in the city as they are being evacuated (forcibly, as necessary). This strikes me as a much more sensible (and attainable) level of public order -- not one that one that will satisfy the television-watching public's thirst for justice, perhaps, but one that will in any event put an end to the sorry spectacle.