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Paging Claude Rains*

I read stories like this one, discussing European Union outrage that the National Security Agency might have been spying on EU offices, and naturally, I think of this:

 

Honestly, the notion that EU members didn’t think that friendly governments might be spying on them, or that spying never goes on between friends, is more than a little laughable. If EU members are actually just learning about this phenomenon . . . well . . . I guess I now understand why the EU might be in a lot of trouble; naïveté is just killing it.

Of course, I am sure that this is just faux-shock and outrage on the part of EU members, many of whom have to know that (a) even friendly governments spy on one another; and (b) the espionage services of individual EU members likely spy on the United States as well.

*Yes, Rains’s iconic performance was as Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca.  But I have a soft spot in my heart for his portrayal of Mr. Dryden.

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“They Can’t Take Away . . . Our FREEDOM!”

Via Professor Bainbridge, I see that the perpetually silly Sarah Palin is making noises about joining the also-perpetually silly Mark Levin in forming a new party–the “Freedom Party.” Of course, as Professor Bainbridge notes, the choice of name is, well, unfortunate. But there is good news associated with this development; if Palin and Levin make good on their threat to leave the Republican party, they will increase my chances of staying in the party.

Which would be nice of them. After all, having to go through the trouble of changing party identification can be somewhat annoying.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Apologist for Tyranny

Good Sartre jokes aside, his reputation deserves to take a serious hit:

. . . starting in the mid-1940s, and increasingly over the next 10 years, Sartre begins to worship at another altar: the altar of Communism. This is an ideology that has notoriously little use for individual freedom; instead of human beings freely making themselves, it sees them acting out the roles imposed on them by the class struggle. In the mission statement for Les Temps Modernes, the magazine he launched in 1945, Sartre seems to reject any notion of artistic independence. The writer, he now believes, is always already committed to history, and has no choice but to take part in the political battles of his day. “The writer is situated in his time; every word he utters has reverberations. As does his silence,” Sartre warns.

In the pages that follow, we witness the strange and, eventually, repellent spectacle of this tribune of freedom becoming an apologist for the worst kinds of oppression, so long as it comes waving the banner of liberation. A key text here is “Portrait of the Adventurer,” published in 1950 as the introduction to a book about writers who were also men of action, like T.E. Lawrence and Andre Malraux. Subversively, Sartre turns his piece into a rejection of precisely that type of human being, in favor of what he calls “the militant”—that is, the militant Communist, the party member. When he writes, “Rather than taking your ego from you, the Party gives it to you,” he means this as high praise: the militant extinguishes his individual personality and becomes a pure function of the class struggle. “He is never alone because he discovers himself through the others. He possesses neither depth nor secrets.” At the end of this hymn to soullessness, even Sartre himself seems to recoil: “Yet a socialist society in which future Lawrences would be radically impossible would strike me as sterile,” he confesses.

Eventually, Sartre wised up . . . kinda:

By 1968, the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia left Sartre with no choice but to abandon his illusions about the U.S.S.R. “The Socialism That Came In From the Cold,” his essay on Czech culture under communism, is as clear-eyed an analysis as any dissident could offer. Yet even then, he condemns this socialism in the name of a potentially better one. By then, he has transferred his illusions about liberation to the Third World. In his famous introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he writes with unconcealed glee about the prospect of Algerians killing their former masters, which happen to be the French. At the bottom of much of Sartre’s politics, in fact, there lies a frank enjoyment of hatred, which also expresses itself in some of his polemics against enemies and former friends. That is why We Have Only this Life to Live ends up seeming less like an inspiration than an existential warning: a great intellect alone, it shows, does not make a great man.

 

A New Low in Police Overreaction

A University of Virginia student bought bottled water, cookie dough and ice cream,” and got approached by state Alcoholic Beverage Control in plainclothes, who thought that she was purchasing beer–apparently, the agents thought that the student was underage. One apparently pulled a gun and the student, unaware of who they were, tried to flee. They even went so far as to try to break the windows of her car when she tried to get away (wouldn’t you have tried to get away if you didn’t know who these people were?).

After finding out who the agents were, the student apologized, but that wasn’t good enough and she was charged with three felonies and spent time in jail. Ironically enough, she apparently got arrested after calling 911 in order to report her encounter with the people who turned out to be Alcoholic Beverage Control agents. 

Here’s what I’m wondering: Why were the agents in plainclothes? Why not wear uniforms to (a) identify oneself; and (b) deter underaged people who see the uniformed agents from buying beer? Here’s something else I’m wondering: Will the agents be fired? I am betting the answer to that is “no,” which of course would make this shocking story even more appalling.

A Much Needed History Lesson on DOMA

Many of the Democrats celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA would have you believe that they opposed the law from the outset. Zenon Evans performs a mitzvah by reminding all and sundry of what those Democrats desperately want all and sundry to forget:

. . . In response to the ruling, Bill Clinton tweeted that he is “grateful to all who fought tirelessly for this day.” He also released an official statement condemning the discriminatory nature of DOMA. What Clinton failed to mention was that he signed the act into law.

He wasn’t alone in his silence. Other leading Democrats who supported it include Vice President Joe Biden, who voted for DOMA as a senator. Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), who said, “The idea that allowing two loving, committed people to marry would have a negative impact on anyone else, or on our nation as a whole, has always struck me as absurd,” also forgot to note that he voted for DOMA. Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) released a statement praising the forward thinking of the Supreme Court. “The march towards equality… moved forward again today… The Supreme Court did the right thing here and helps us understand that the march to equality in America is unstoppable.” He made no mention of the fact that he, too, voted for the act and against “the march to equality.” Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) patted himself on the back: “As a member of Congress who signed the amicus brief urging this decision [to repeal DOMA], I am thrilled that the Supreme Court took a strong stand for marriage equality.” Menendez saw no need to clarify that this was only after he voted for DOMA in the first place. Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) voiced his support yesterday saying, “I am glad that the court recognized that all American families deserve the same legal protections,” but made no mention of why his point of view flipped.

As in so many such cases, it is as though some people believe that their past positions cannot be accurately Googled by others.

Remember Kelo v. City of New London?

If not, read Wikipedia, or better yet, read the actual decision.

Done? Lovely. Now read this. The barbs and sarcasm contained in the following excerpt are, of course, entirely justified:

Eventually, something will probably get built on the site. But in the meantime, it will have lain empty for many years, probably at least a decade in all. In addition to the financial and emotional costs imposed on the people who lost their homes, this hiatus ensures that the takings will be a net loss when it comes to promoting development for the city as well. It is actually quite common for economic development takings to end up destroying more development than they create.

Fortunately, the eight year wait was not a total loss. 
Feral cats have been making use of the land where Susette Kelo’s house once stood. But I suspect that the city could have built an even better home for the feral cats for a lot less than $80 million, and without condemning any private property.

 

In Which I Have Decided to Be My Own Personal Drudge Report

I have a Paper.li account in which favorite Internet material–including blog posts found here–is collated and sent out for the reading pleasure of subscribers. It also includes my tweets. Subscribing is free, so sign up to receive editions in your e-mail inbox today.

On the Efficacy of Cash Transfers to the Poor

Smart comments from Chris Blattman:

First, the message can be misunderstood. It is not, “Cash transfers to the poor are a panacea.” More like, “They probably suck less than most of the other things we are doing.” This is not a high bar.

Second, cash transfers work in some cases not others. If a poor person is enterprising, and their main problem is insufficient capital, terrific. If that’s not their problem, throwing cash will not do much to help. I recommend 
the paper for details. Apologies: It is even more boring that Das Kapital.

Third, a cash transfer to help the poor build business is like aspirin to a flesh wound. It helps, but not for long. The real problem is the absence of firms small and large to employ people productively. The root of the problem is political instability, economic uncertainty, and a country’s high cost structure, among other things. A government’s attention is properly on these bigger issues.

If I were an enterprising young researcher looking for an idea and experiments that will prove powerful in five years, I would try to find the stake I can drive into the heart of the cash transfer movement.

My rule of thumb in this profession: “If the New York Times covers a research paper, the next year we will learn that it’s wrong”.

My only quibble is that aspirins don’t help for flesh wounds, as they only serve to thin the blood and increase bleeding.

The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage

I support the policy outcomes in both of the same-sex marriage cases before the Supreme Court. I believe that the Defense of Marriage Act was bad law that treated people differently for no good reason whatsoever, and I am glad to have seen it overturned in the Court’s decision in Windsor. As law professor Randy Barnett, who wrote an amicus brief in the Windsor case, points out,

. . . DOMA was unconstitutional because (a) Congress had no enumerated power to regulate or “defend” marriage by imposing its definition on the states, and (b) DOMA was not necessary and proper for carrying into execution any of its enumerated powers.  By operating in so sweeping and undiscriminating a manner, DOMA was exceeded its enumerated powers by enacting a law that by design interfered with the operation of the traditional state regulation of marriage.  But overlooked in debates about our argument, we also made this federalism claim in the context of equal protection:  (c) DOMA’s sweeping and indiscriminate application to over a thousand federal statutes could not pass any level of equal protection scrutiny, even the most deferential, because Congress failed to identify a federal interest why each of these disparate federal laws should not track state laws defining marriage, as had previously been the case.

I agree with this reasoning, and although–as Professor Barnett points out–Justice Kennedy’s opinion adopted this reasoning “with a twist,” the fact remains that “federalism wins out in theory as well as in practice” when it comes to the same-sex marriage cases, which is good both for federalism, and for the cause of equality in general.

A very good analysis of the DOMA case is offered by Timothy Sandefur, who–while agreeing with the policy outcome of the case–does state his belief that “the Court went out of its way to escape the long-standing limits on its jurisdiction in order to issue this precedent.” And I also agree with the way that Ilya Shapiro has put things:

Today, the Court upheld the equal liberty and dignity of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation with its ruling in United States v. Windsor. This represents a major victory for gay rights, of course, but more broadly vindicates a robust view of individual liberty as protected by the Constitution. It should be axiomatic that the federal government has to treat all people equally, that it has to accept the several states’ sovereign laws on marriage (and many other subjects), and today there were five votes at the Supreme Court for that proposition.

It is now clear that there was simply no valid reason to uphold DOMA Section 3, no reason to deny the equal protection of more than 1,000 federal laws. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the unified majority, “the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage.”

This is 
exactly the result we were hoping for.

As for the Perry case, which leaves California’s Proposition 8 invalidated due to a standing issue, I am glad that the decision functionally means that same-sex couples are able to get married in California, but of course, the fight in California is not over. I imagine that opponents of same-sex marriage will try to find another way to invalidate same-sex marriage in California, and I think that the only decisive way to beat back such an effort is for proponents of same-sex marriage to win a ballot fight on the issue at the polls. In fact, in general, it is preferable for same-sex marriage advocates that this issue is fought and won at the polls from now on, and kept out of the courts as much as possible. Only by winning at the polls will same-sex marriage advocates be able to show that their cause–which I support–is supported by the American people in general; any victory in the courts, no matter how decisive, will continue to cause opponents of same-sex marriage to claim that the right is being validated because of the actions of unelected judges.

Oh, and two quotes that I saw on Facebook are worth repeating here. Here is the first: 

Clinton signed DOMA into law. The Koch Brothers favored same-sex marriage before it became fashionable. But it’s not like you’ll update your priors based on that.

The second one makes the same point, and is from law professor Jonathan Adler: 

Nice to see so many friends of mine on the Left cheering a Supreme Court decision striking down a federal law enacted by a broad, bipartisan majority and signed into law by President Clinton. (Oh, and did I mention that this decision was supported enthusiastically by the Koch Brothers and urged by Koch-funded entities?)

 

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