Monday, 7 July 2008


I leave you this fine evening with a column by David Frum.

Twenty Years Ago

7-7-88 Thursday. Last night, after the news, there was a PBS (Public Broadcasting Station [sic; should be “Service”]) special on the Custer Battlefield, Dreams Along the Little Bighorn. The emphasis was not on the battle—for example, explaining strategy or tactics—but on the people. There were interviews with historians, writers, and Indians; film footage of the battle site; and dozens of paintings of the battle. One historian observed that Custer serves as a focal point for either patriotism or disgust. At one age, he represents the indomitable American spirit; at another, he represents clumsiness, vanity, and greed. I find that interesting. To me, the battle represents many things: the clash of cultures between Europeans and Indians, the aggressiveness and territoriality of human beings, the slow the inevitable destruction of the natural western environment, and the disparate characters of particular individuals such as [George Armstrong] Custer [1839-1876] and Sitting Bull [c. 1831-1890]. One does not have to be a militarist to appreciate the tragedy that occurred on that hot June day in 1876; one need only be a human being.

It has been four days since the shooting of an Iranian passenger plane by a United States warship. Almost three hundred civilians were killed. Initially, we were told by the administration that the plane was off course and heading directly for our naval vessel at top speed. But now there are conflicting stories. On one of them, the plane was on course and no threat whatsoever to the naval vessel. What interests me is the language that politicians and commentators use to describe what happened. President [Ronald] Reagan [1911-2004] called it an “accident”, while others have described it as a “mistake”. There’s a big difference. J. L. Austin [1911-1960] once used the following example to explain it. “If I shoot your donkey thinking that it is mine”, he wrote, “I have shot your donkey by mistake. But if I shoot your donkey while trying to hit the target beyond it, I have shot your donkey by accident.” (I stated that by recollection.) A mistake, roughly, is a defect in knowledge or belief; I believe that I am doing X, when in fact I am doing Y. An accident is a defect in intention; I intend to do X, but slip up and do Y instead.

Hence, if the commander of the naval vessel believed that the Iranian passenger plane was a fighter jet, and shot it for that reason, he made a mistake. If, on the other hand, he knew that it was a passenger plane and tried to warn it by firing a missile at close range, he accidentally destroyed it. In the former case, he intended to destroy an airplane, but mistook the passenger plane for a fighter jet. In the latter case, he did not intend to destroy an airplane, let alone a passenger plane. See the difference? As for culpability, both accident and mistake are usually viewed as excuses in law and morality. So we might describe the commander’s behavior as follows: It was wrong to destroy the passenger plane, but given the situation, he is excused. He is excused because the destruction was accidental or mistaken. Should one apologize for a wrongful but excused action? Perhaps; and if so, then compensation to the victims is in order. We’ll see if [sic; should be “whether”] the administration compensates. [It did, but without admitting to wrongdoing.]


Welcome to the blogosphere, Milton!


Here is a scene from today’s stage of the Tour de France. Here is tomorrow’s stage (an individual time trial).

Bush-Hatin’ Paul

Paul Krugman¹ says that President Bush’s tax cuts “didn’t work.” Didn’t work at doing what? Krugman never tells us. I hope he’s not inferring that they didn’t work from the fact that the economy is bad. Isn’t it possible that the economy would be worse if not for the tax cuts? Should we say that welfare programs “don’t work” because there are still poor people? The question is not whether there are still poor people; it is whether welfare programs have reduced the number. Krugman is committing what I call “the perfectionist fallacy.” It goes like this:

1. Program P hasn’t led to perfection.
2. P is a failure.

Maybe I should call it “the Krugman fallacy.”


¹“Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults” (Daniel Okrent, “13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did,” The New York Times, 22 May 2005).

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

In your editorial’s discussion of the Supreme Court’s last term, the outcomes at odds with your policy preferences are denounced, while those conforming to those views are praised.

The Times may prefer having its views of the good imposed by raw judicial power, rather than through the more cumbersome process of representative democracy. But that is not the system prescribed by the Constitution, which sets forth what is to be beyond the power of majorities to impose, and leaves the rest to the political process.

For instance, to contend that the meaning of “cruel and unusual” punishment should be determined by five judges’ independent notions about society’s evolving standards of decency—rather than by historical analysis of what the framers understood those words to mean—is to endorse judicial rule untethered to any objectively ascertainable standard. Resistance to such an anti-democratic concept is hardly a far-right position.

Howard F. Jaeckel
New York, July 3, 2008

Note from KBJ: Poor Howard F. Jaeckel! He doesn’t realize that, to the New York Times editorial board, as to most law professors, the end—progressive policy—justifies the means. See here for my commentary on the editorial opinion.

Health Care

This is outrageous. I don’t want one dime of my money going to health care for nonAmericans.

Henry S. Salt (1851-1939) on the Veil of Ignorance

What have humane people to say to the tremendous mass of animal suffering inflicted in the interests of the Table? By the unthinking, of course, these sufferings, being invisible, are almost wholly overlooked, while the deadening power of habit prevents many kindly persons from exercising, where their daily “beef” and “mutton” are concerned, the very sympathies which they so keenly manifest elsewhere; yet it can hardly be doubted that if the veil of custom could be lifted, and if a clear knowledge of what is involved in “Butchery” could be brought home, with a sense of personal responsibility, to everyone who eats flesh, the attitude of society towards the vegetarian movement would be very different from what it is now. If it be true that “hunger is the best sauce,” it may also be said that the bon vivant’s most indispensable sauce is ignorance—ignorance of the horrible and revolting circumstances under which his juicy steak or dainty cutlet has been prepared.

(Henry S. Salt, The Logic of Vegetarianism: Essays and Dialogues [London: The Ideal Publishing Union, 1899], 42 [italics in original])

A Year Ago