Quote of the Day

The social good that a small government politician does is only partially captured by current mechanisms while the social good that a big government politician does is counted and counted again as it’s the gross good, not the net that gets credited to him. Indirect, negative private effects are seldom linked unless they are very obvious and such negative effects often take many years to show up as Atlee in the UK and Wagner in NYC played to their benefit.

TM Lutas

Iris Chang

A few years ago, my daughter and I were watching Brian Lamb interview Iris Chang. My daughter was no more a child, but she asked me (and I quite readily agreed) to turn it off for neither of us could bear the graphics and descriptions of the Rape of Nanking. I respected her for that book, for bringing to attention something we all needed to know. But if we could not stand it for those ten minutes on television, how heavy must it be for someone immersed in, writing about, thinking about such things. I assume the suicide comes from all the personal everyday reasons people commit suicide – but in her study, I would have turned from life, too. And perhaps her willingness to face those moments that show us how depraved we can be is a kind of heroism, too. (But I still won’t be able to read what people like Ms. Chang describe.)

Political Funny Business

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is intended to balance the interests of North American Indian tribes and scientists.

There’s a long-running scandal in the handling of the prehistoric skeleton known as Kennewick Man, which is thought to be over 9000 years old and is of great scientific interest. An Indian tribe claimed the skeleton as one of its own and refused to allow it to be studied. Despite a lack of evidence for its claim, the tribe was supported by various government agencies and other Indian tribes. Scientists who want to study the skeleton sued the government and the tribes, claiming a right to access under NAGPRA. The suit dragged on for years during which the tribes and government did not distinguish themselves by their behavior. (Typically, the defendants repeatedly insisted that tribes have the right to control the remains of their members, while they ignored requests to show a connection between the Kennewick skeleton and the tribe that claimed it.) Eventually, and only quite recently, the defendants exhausted all appeals and the scientists prevailed.

Now comes a bill, S-2843, introduced by retiring Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R, CO), that would amend NAGPRA essentially to give control of all pre-1492 human remains in North America to Indian tribes, whether or not there is any evidence of affiliation. In the words of a press release from a group opposed to the bill:

. . . the amended definition would now include all human remains that pre-date European contact (1492), even if the remains are not from Native Americans. It presumes that any remains found this century, even if 50,000 years old, are somehow related to modern American Indians and should be placed off limits to scientific study (and buried if tribal groups so wish).

S-2843 is stealth legislation designed to moot the scientists’ court victory. If enacted, it would give Indian tribes a legal choke hold over much North American anthropological research. It upsets the reasonable balance struck in the original NAGPRA, and invites the extraction of rents from scientific institutions that wish to obtain permission to do archaeological studies. It deserves wide publicity and scrutiny and should be defeated.

More information:

Moira Breen’s Kennewick Man Links (indispensable)

Friends of America’s Past

Center for the Study of the First Americans

Educated Fools

Glenn Reynolds links to this Reason Online discussion in which journalists and mainly-libertarian intellectual types discuss whom they’re voting for and why.

Some of these people, including Reynolds himself, seem mature and reasonable. But quite a few of the others come across as frivolous, apathetic, foolish or all of the above. Michael Shermer thinks it’s important that Kerry is a bicyclist. Richard Epstein doesn’t remember for whom he voted in 2000, thinks the major parties are essentially identical and won’t vote for either of them in 2004. And the guy from The Independent Institute doesn’t want to soil his hands by voting. (Somehow his attitude doesn’t surprise me — see here and here for some background on an exchange I had with another guy from The Independent Institute.)

So, with some notable exceptions, these extremely bright people, many of whom spend a lot of time giving the rest of us advice on how to make decisions about public affairs, are a bunch of idiots in their personal voting behavior. Yeah, I know: most individuals’ votes are not decisive, voters are rationally ignorant, the major parties are effectively a cartel, etc. These objections are narrowly true but miss the big picture. Voting should be treated as a civic sacrament, because on the margin our system can live or die depending on how carefully the voters vote, and they are more likely to take voting seriously if intellectuals don’t denigrate it as an activity. This is especially true now, when the main issue of the day is of overwhelming importance and the major-party candidates have profoundly different approaches to that issue.

One shouldn’t over-intellectualize this stuff, but I think it’s valuable to look at what people think is important enough to spend their own time on. If ordinary people in places like Afghanistan appreciate how important elections are, both symbolically and practically, even when none of the candidates is perfect, why do so many smart people here miss the point?

Maybe we should skip elections altogether, and appoint leaders randomly (with strictly limited terms, of course) from the telephone book. That might work better than decisionmaking by what Thomas Sowell called “articulated rationality” — the main decisionmaking method used by the people interviewed in the Reason forum. Certainly they sound impressive, but do they make better decisions than does the typical voter? Experience, and now disclosure, suggest not.

Something That I Learned From Reading Blogs

Not only are there many extremely intelligent ordinary people out there, but a lot of famous, mainstream journalists and commentators get by mainly on their rhetorical skill and lack both analytical ability and common sense.

UPDATE: Mitch raised the hair issue in the comments, and I realized that I didn’t mean to restrict what I wrote to mainstream-media people. Andrew Sullivan (not to pick on him but he’s an obvious example) fits the pattern, despite not being a MSM person and not having important hair. He writes beautifully but his analysis of matters economic (deficits bad!) and geopolitical (we’re losing!) is somewhat less acute than is his rhetoric. Some people simply write better than they think. We should always examine arguments carefully, no matter who made them or how satisfying they sound.