Man Without Qualities

Monday, January 22, 2007

One Step Beyond

For some reason known only to her, French presidential candidate Segolene Royal, who has never even visited Quebec, has been mindlessly asserting in public (!) that the province and France have "common values," including “sovereignty and Quebec’s freedom.” That bizarre and pointless provocation (what's she got against Canada anyway?) has drawn a rebuke from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest. The incident of course recalls a low point of French President Charles de Gaulle career when he declared "Vive le Quebec libre" (Long live free Quebec) during a visit to Canada in 1967. He is said to have been surprised to have to cut short his visit after making the comment. One wonders if he planned next to visit New Orleans and spice things up by shouting "Les Sud monteront encore" (The South will rise again!) in Jackson Square.

In any event, since this kind of thing keeps happening, perhaps the Canadian government should consider going one step beyond the predictable expressions of astonishment at the destructive stupidity of the meddling French politician de jour. Perhaps the time has come for Canada to really get behind some or all of the really amazing number of French regional separatist movements. Why should the Canadian government be deterred from finding "common values" including “sovereignty and Corsica's freedom” with, say, the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica just because that organization practices bombings, aggravated assault, armed bank robbery and extortion through "revolutionary taxes?" After all, their attacks are mostly aimed at public buildings, banks, touristic infrastructure, military buildings and other symbols of French control - usually not against persons. Maybe Ottowa should announce that it will consider making financial contributions to Corsica Nazione and Partitu di a Nazione Corsa, political parties advocating Corsican separation from France? Why not? Or maybe it would be more interesting for the Canadians to stimulate the ambitions of separatists seeking to break off some other piece of France with a (sometimes violent) separatist movement, such as Alsace-Lorraine or French Basque Country or Brittany or Nice or Normandy or Northern Catalonia or Savoy or (my favorite) Occitania?

Of course, one might reasonably ask what business does Canada have to foment the break up of France? But, then again, why the heck do French politicians think they have a role in stimulating the breakup of Canada? I guess it's just fun for some people to watch the scramble, the way some kids like to burn ants with a magnifying glass.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Taking Bill Richardson Seriously

Democratic Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico has just announced that he is taking the first step toward an expected White House run in 2008. It may be difficult for many people to take him seriously. After all, none of the things Terry McAuliffe listed about Hillary Clinton can be said of the New Mexico Governor: “She has the name recognition, the money, the glitz, she’s got it all.” John Edwards has all that plus really good teeth and a cash-in-the-bank silver tongue! And while Mr. Richardson can make a claim in the identity-politics game ("He seeks to become the first Hispanic president!"), the whole Obamarama type thing is missing. Heck, Senator Obama is said to be so fat-free than he is worthy of mention as a beach-babe in the same breath as the sainted Catherine Zeta-Jones, Penelope Cruz, Jessica Alba and Hugh Jackman - while the good Governor (how to say this politely) is probably best advised to stay out of saltwater.

So why take Bill Richardson seriously?

One should take Bill Richardson seriously for the same reason that one would have done well to have taken Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and even the preposterous Howard Dean seriously at this stage of the campaign:

Bill Richardson is a successful governor.
He has real public chief executive experience, and he sounds like it and looks like it. None of Clinton, Obama or Edwards has ever run anything beyond a political campaign. That doesn't seem to matter to some chattery people. For example, according to Mr. McAuliffe Senator Clinton "has it all" - but for some reason Mr. McAuliffe fails to note that at this point she doesn't seem to have the voters. Maybe she and he have a plan to bypass the voters based on some clever adverse possession argument arising from Hillary's eight years in hostile, open and notorious occupancy of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Isn't that why one goes to Yale Law School?

There is a basic political fact here that is normally and foolishly forgot as often and as soon as it is said: The Senate is poor training ground or launching pad for a presidential bid, while the governorship of even a small state is terrific as both. Yes, the dull, incompetent, unpleasant Senator Kerry eventually beat back fiery Governor Dean. But Howard Dean is from a tiny, unrepresentative state, is personally and obviously completely unsuited to serve as president and, on top of all that, is a nut. Given his limitations, it is really remarkable that Howard Dean did as well as he did ... and his governorship is much of what carried him as far as he went, which was pretty far. So the obvious advantages enjoyed by Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards may swamp Governor Richardson's executive experience.

But don't count on it as a certainty. Bill Richardson could be a serious contender.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Things Change And Yet Are Not The Same? II: "Ô Français, faites des enfants!"

As noted below (Things Change And Yet Are Not The Same?), France is cooing over its fertility rate reportedly rising to 2.0 with the media rather mindlessly repeating French politicians' claims that government economic incentives have made the difference. Maybe. Other analyses suggest that politically feasible benefit reforms can move fertility up or down by about 5% - far less than the French politicians and their silly media troops are claiming. In fact, the politicians' explanation seems about as likely as the theory that the French have taken to heart the Poulenc surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias ("The Breasts of Tiresias"), which ends with the ringing and stern command "Ô Français, faites des enfants!" ("O Frenchmen, make babies!") And why not?

Whatever it is that drives the French fertility rate, it sure has changed a lot over time. Between 1950 and 1965, the total fertility rate in France remained above 2.7 children per woman, but later dropped by 40 per cent, from 2.85 in 1960-1965 to 1.72 in 1990-1995. Some claim the rate reached as low as 1.63 in 1998. A change from 1.72 to 2.00 is about a 16% change in fertility - or more than three times the 5% maximum that has been estimated to be obtainable from government economic incentives. Where did the other 11% (more, if one accepts the 1.63 rate) change come from?

Well, I don't know. But I'd like to posit a possible "Roe Effect" here.

Oral contraception became common just about the time the French fertility rate hit its 1960's peak. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if the availability of contraception allowed for a big new measure of control of pregnancy, and therefore fertility, than was previously available. In other words, it seems reasonable that many French births prior to the late 1960's were "unwanted" - and thereafter "avoided" -resulting in the drop in fertility to 1.72 by 1990.

It seems reasonable that children whose parents want to have children will themselves be more likely than the average person to want to have children. Of course, such "wants" mean little until one can separate sex from the possibility of children on the choice level. In other words, absent contraception and abortion, the decision to have sex will pretty much determine the question of whether there will be children. That means that prior to wide scale contraception and abortion (before, say, circa 1965), people became parents once they had sex regardless of whether they wanted to have children. After abortion and contraception became elective, only people who wanted to have children had children.

So what?

Well, after one post-1965 generation France should be populated only with the children of people who wanted to have children - and we've posited that such children will want to have children more than others. In other words, it seems reasonable that the availability of abortion and contraception will after one generation increase the percentage of people in the population who actually want to have children. That should boost the fertility rate - perhaps enough to account for the increased fertility rate.

Such effects are everywhere. It is said that such effects are making the United States more conservative and Republican, for example. Such "Roe Effects" have famously been charged with reducing the crime rate and many, many other things. Would it really be all that surprising if Roe Effects caused the French to rise to Mr. Poulenc's challenge and embrace Les mamelles de Tirésias?

I'm not asserting that Roe Effects are the best explanation for the recent apparent uptick in French fertility rate - only that such Effects are worth studying in this regard. Of course, all of this suggests that one ask about the fertility rates and histories of other countries. Indeed, the French fertility rate has attracted some rather curious criticism over the years. In 1990, for example, Herve Le Bras, one of the directors of research at France's national institute of demographic studies, was dropped from the editorial board of the institute's journal, Population and Society, and from his functions as a scientific adviser. He claimed that the institute had been "telling whoppers for the past 15 years" by using a method of calculation which leads to a figure of 1.8 births per woman, even though it admits that the total number of children born to women of one generation stands at 2.1.

Odd, that.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

And The Alternative Behind Door Number Two Is ...?

Yesterday we learned that Nancy Pelosi will not seek to cut off funding to block Mr. Bush's "troop surge." Indeed, the new Speaker said that "Democrats will never cut off funding for our troops when they are in harm's way" - which, of course, is exactly what another Democratic Congress did to force an end the Vietnam War.

There is no question that general discontent with the Iraq situation, and with the Administration's handling of it, is high and getting higher. Indeed, there is no real question that such discontent is the overwhelming reason why Democrats now have a tenuous majority in both Houses of Congress. But it's one thing to tap into public discontent with the direction of the Iraq incursion to win an election, and quite another thing to come up with a viable alternative. Coming up with a satisfactory alternative is now on Ms. Pelosi and her troops and the clock is ticking. But the political difficulty involved is apparent in the public's confused (to say the least) answers to this question in a recent Los Angeles Times Poll:
Q: What issue should be the first priority for the newly elected Congress to address? (top three responses; up to two responses accepted)
Only 20% of respondents said that "Set a timetable" should be top priority, 9% said "Oppose Bush plan" should have that priority, while a mere 7% thought that coming up with an "Alternative plan" should be tops. Healthcare drew 20% and Stronger immigration laws drew 10%.

That kind of grossly confused public sentiment may be a key reason Ms. Pelosi is taking no definitive action against the Bush move, while making inflamatory but highly ambiguous comments such as her assertion on Friday that the President is wading too deeply into Iraq and said it should not be "an obligation of the American people in perpetuity."

I'm not sure what the effect of a policy of super heated rhetoric coupled with feckless activity will be in the large - and I doubt if Ms. Pelosi does either. But I'm fairly sure that such a policy carries pretty big risks for the Speaker personally - and I think she does, too. The fact that she is prepared to take that risk is some indication of how volatile the crrent situation in Washington really is.
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McCain-Feingold, Dead By Independence Day?

The Supreme Court today agreed to review McCain-Feingold to "see" if it violates the free speech rights of advocacy groups by prohibiting them from running ads mentioning specific candidates before an election. Of course, this is pretty similar to the Supreme Court granting review of a law to "see" if it violates the free speech rights of advocacy groups by, say, allowing the government to keep the members of the group bound and gagged for the sixty days before an election. The answer is obvious, but only if one actually cares about the First Amendment. The Washington Post reports:
The Supreme Court three years ago upheld the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold, which was enacted to reduce the influence of campaign spending by wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and special interest groups. But Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was part of the 5-4 majority that issued a complicated, nearly 300-page ruling, has retired. She has been replaced by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. After O'Connor's departure, the court last year told the lower court to take another look at Wisconsin Right to Life's petition.
When the Court - any court - hands down a complicated 300 page split opinion, you know its got to be wrong, and they know it, too. One doesn't have to be a veteran Court watcher to figure out that the old-4-vote-minority-plus-Alito is eyeing that opinion foolishly upholding McCain-Feingold with approximately as a highway partol officer eyes a red Porsche doing a ton-and-twenty-five that got away from him the week before.

Done by July. With lots of summertime left to reach right up and touch the sky!

UPDATE: The usually clueless Linda Greenhouse weighs in true to form, grossly underplaying the error made by those (including the FEC and Ms. Greenhouse) who "had regarded the constitutionality of the provision as settled." In fact, the Court made clear in a later unanimous opinion that it had merely upheld the statute "on its face" (as Ms. Greenhouse notes but without commenting on the Court's astonished tone). Even upholding McCain-Feingold on its face was technically already serious Court error, as indicated by Justice O'Connor's tortured opinion. But that error was almost nothing in substance and practice, especially given Justice O'Connor's intensely fact-and-application-based opinion. Look for the Court to either reverse itself and declare McCain-Feingold flatly unconstitutional on its face, or (more likely) to overturn its old decision sub silentio by holding that the statute is unconstitutional in virtually all applications - especially where the statute's advocates most want it to apply!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Things Change And Yet Are Not The Same?

Some things have changed in France:
France has overtaken Ireland to become the European nation with the highest birthrate ... taking the fertility rate to two babies per woman for the first time since 1974.... [H]alf the children are born outside marriage. ... The birthrate among immigrants generally matched that of native-born French. ...

Parents are helped by a system of allowances, free daycare and universal nursery schooling, cut-price transport and generous income tax reductions. .... France is on course to become the most populous country in Europe by 2050, overtaking Germany. ... Germany introduced French-style incentives last year for couples to produce children. Its population is expected to drop from today’s 82 million to under 70 million unless women can be encouraged to have more [children].
It would be particularly interesting to see at least one additional bit of statistical breakdown in this data: How does the birthrate of native-born French women whose parents were immigrants to France (especially from Africa) compare to the birthrate of other native-born French women? There is a clear social divide in France between more recent immigrants and their children on the one hand, and other French. The article states that birthrate among immigrants generally matched that of native-born French, which suggests that reproduction pattern of the children of immigrants is not that different from that of other French people, but that conclusion is far from logically compelled.

The article is also rather blasé about its assumption that the increased French birthrate is mostly attributable to government economic incentives. Other estimates place the cost elasticity of the demand for children to be about 0.2 and go on to suggest that politically feasible benefit reforms can change the cost of children by about 25% and move fertility up or down by about 5%. The current French results as reported in this quoted article may be well beyond that 5% range. Italy, for example, has a birth rate of about 1.2 to 1.3, far outside the 5% envelope.

It's interesting to see this assumption that economic incentives profoundly affect reproductive decisions at work without apparent friction, even to the point of possible serious exaggeration, where the similar proposition that the economic effects of the American welfare system dramatically affected the reproductive choices of welfare recipients has long been an incendiary element in American political discussion. Perhaps a measure of that incendiary potential can be seen in the article's demur announcement that "half the children are born outside marriage," with no discussion at all as to whether that figure is also attributable largely to those same government economic incentives. Then there is the possible elephant in the corner that goes completely undiscussed: The likely quality of the additional French children. If one is counting on the new births to help pay for social programs - as the article indicates is happening in France now - it would be a good idea to first determine whether the new children are really going to be making a significant contribution, or whether they will act more like the children of American-style "welfare dependency."

As an interesting aside, Post-World War II French income tax policy was highly unusual and regressive, and was enacted to increase fertility. Most countries provide a fixed income tax deduction for each child. For forty years following WWII, French policy provided a deduction increasing with family size - creating a tax advantage of having children that increased with wealth. That French policy was unique in providing a monetary incentive for fertility that was large and greatest among the rich.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Creme de la Creme

One of the more intense and peculiar politically correct crusades is the drive against "obesity" - especially "childhood obesity." It's not that obesity shouldn't be avoided or isn't generally a bad thing. But as with many PC obsessions, many of the most intense participants in the anti-obesity drive often seem to be motivated by an entirely different agenda, one that often seems to be obscure to such participants themselves. That agenda seems to have something to do with a deep disapproval of fast food, unfettered personal choice and a whole consumerist attitude towards life.

Perhaps nowhere is this confused and obscure agenda suggested more strongly than in the drive against certain milk products, especially full-fat milk served in school. We are often told in the highest political decibels that schools that serve full-fat milk are all but guilty of child abuse. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever that serving non-fat milk to school children would even correspond to a likely weight loss, still less that serving non-fat milk would actually cause or result in weight loss or control. Yet the PC brigades soldier on.

Now comes Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, which now reckons that daily consumption of full fat dairy products will lead to a reduction of obesity:
The startling result was based on interviews with almost 20,000 women whose dietary habits have been tracked since 1987.

When the study began, the women had an average body mass index (BMI) of 23.7. Ten years later, the women who had regularly consumed full fat milk or cheese had a lower BMI than the rest of the group.

A glass of full fat milk every day will, according to the researchers, result in 15 percent less weight gain. But full fat cheese was an even more effective slimming product: one portion a day resulted in 30 percent less weight gain.

"The surprising conclusion was that increased consumption of cheese meant that overweight women lost weight," said Alicja Wolk, professor at Karolinska Institute, to Svenska Dagbladet.

Actually, the result is far from "startling" or "surprising" given that we know very little about obesity other than that it results over time from eating more calories than one metabolizes - and especially given the pre-existing lack of any scientific correlation between consumption of skim milk and weight control. How can one be rationally "startled" or "surprised' when one had no idea what to expect in the first place?

Will the anti-fat-milk PC brigades back down now on the drive to eliminate full-fat dairy products from school menus and children's diets? Or, better yet, will the brigades now lobby for serving full-fat milk ad dairy products in public schools? Probably not. And their not backing down would make their agenda seem even more obscure and confused, wouldn't it?

POSTSCRIPT: New York City — the nation's largest school district — has famously decided to cut whole milk from its school menus in response to criticism from the anti-milk-fat brigade. Moreover, current federal government nutrition guidelines suggest drinking 3 cups of fat-free or lowfat milk a day. If the Swedes are correct, following those guidelines should help anyone - including children - swell up nicely. And New York City school children should have an advantage over children from the rest of the country in swelling to ever more Brobdingnagian proportions! (Perhaps a misuse of the term, since the Brobdingnagians were just really big - not fat, actually. But, then the term has come to mean "gigantic" or a "size problem" generally - at least in some quarters.)

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