Saturday, June 26, 2010

The annual case for drug legalization

I believe it’s yet again time for a what must be at the very least an annual call to end the war on drugs and/or legalize drugs. I’ll use John Stossel's weekly column as a launching off point. I link to the version on the conservative site because there it’s generated a much more negative response than the version posted on the libertarian and libertine Reason. And I don’t mean to pick on the pro-drug war conservatives, but there's an inherent tension in conservatism between the ideology of limited government and the acceptance of traditional legal and social norms.

Rather than make the typical appeal that we own our own bodies and the drug war creates more social problems than it prevents, I thought I'd instead address the arguments of drug warriors and those opposed to legalization. What always gets me is the sheer ferocity of the responses to calls for drug legalization, as if the current state of drug prohibition was the natural order of things. Drug warriors never give a philosophical justification of why government should be allowed in this area of our lives, but not others. What we get are the sorts of arguments that would be thrown out in the most elementary philosophy classes, or, alternatively, a paranoia that legalized drug use will literally destroy America. What I've done here is provide responses to some of what seem to be typical responses to the calls for drug legalization.

If government can't protect us, why not legalize murder?

This is one of those inane comments that fails to differentiate between victimless crimes and crimes with victims. No one wants to eliminate crimes against persons or property because that's the most important reason we have government and law enforcement in the first place. The argument to legalize drugs is that ending the black market would help eliminate violent crime. No similar argument about reducing violence can be made in regards to legalized murder.

I don't want someone stoned out of their mind driving the bus!

Nor do I. I also don't want a drunk driving the bus either. Alcohol use and abuse is far more prevalent than other drug use, yet somehow, we manage to survive. Just because drugs are legal doesn't mean we want to let stoned people do things we don't let drunks do right now.

What about the drug users on the streets and in public parks!

Again, let's go back to alcohol. Drug legalization doesn't mean that communities would be required to turn their parks into drug dens. Communities don't have to allow shooting up in public any more than they have to allow open containers of alcohol.

Drug gangs won't just pack up and become upstanding citizens if drugs were legalized.

This is a better point and it's probably true to an extent. But one point should be obvious, based on simple economics. Drug gangs would not be better equipped to sell more drugs at lower prices than a giant retailer like Wal-Mart or a giant pharmacy chain like Walgreens or CVS. Drug gangs would be out of the drug business because they wouldn't be able to compete with corporate distribution networks and business models. Economics matters. Now yes, there would be a substantial number of former dealers out of a job so to speak. But how many drug dealers are violent criminals and how many are just poor kids taking a job that's slightly better and more prestigious than what they could do at McDonald's. (And how many are spoiled suburban kids who sell pot and pills?) Ultimately though, we want the police to round up violent criminals, whether they're part of the drug trade or not. Eliminating the drug trade eliminates the monetary incentive to violence.

What about the children and all the innocent victims of drug abuse?

I'll again return to the point about alcohol. Really though, your views of how we as a society protect children should be no different whether drugs are legal or illegal. Personally, I'm far more concerned about the non-drug user that beats his kids then the crack user who doesn't. The easiest way to protect children is to actually protect them, not

Drug abuse will get worse if drugs are legalized.

Maybe. Or maybe not. I'm not sure anyone knows for sure. What is certain is that the government's own data indicates that millions of Americans have tried the worst sorts of illegal drugs in their lifetimes, but only a small percentage of those who have tried are actually current users. More people would try illegal drugs for sure, if drugs were legalized, but to imply more drug abuse implies that there are millions of drug addicts being kept at bay through the fear of legal punishment and not for instance, the fear of destroying your life. I just find it hard to believe that people scared of jail would not be at least equally scared as scared of becoming a drug addict.

Drug legalization would create an atmosphere of approval.

This one drives me bonkers, as if the legality of a particular activity is the most important way we judge morality. Cheating on your spouse and cheating on a test are both morally wrong activities, but they are not criminal acts. Nor do I suspect anyone thinks that the legality of such activities make them morally acceptable.

Drugs would be more readily available to our kids!

Ask any high schooler familiar with the drug culture what's easier to get their hands on, marijuana, or alcohol. The answer you'd get, overwhelmingly, would be marijuana, precisely because it's illegal and unregulated. Your friends can grow pot. Your thirty year-old cousin from Vermont can grow pot and he's got no problem selling it to high schoolers because he's already breaking the law. But to get alcohol, high schoolers need to find someone over twenty-one who's not breaking the law by buying alcohol, but would be wiling to break the law to give it to high schoolers. Not that alcohol isn't readily available to kids, I'd just say illegal drugs are more so. This argument that legalization would make drugs more available to kids is just ridiculous because illegal drugs are already readily available to any teenagers who seek them out.

Alcohol can't kill you with one drink, but some drugs can kill you with one dose.

Pot can't. Or maybe it could, but alcohol probably could too if you made a bathtub gin strong enough. And that's precisely the reason to legalize, because legal products (with or without the force of the regulatory state) are simply safer than illegal products. You could sue the seller and maker of a legal drug that made a loved one drop dead, but you don't exactly have any legal recourses from illegal drug dealers.

What about the welfare state? Who will pay for the negative side effects of drug use?

This is a real concern, particularly with Obamacare on the horizon. But again, don't we as a society pay for the cost of illegal drug use already? There's a particularly dangerous slippery slope argument to make in regards to the welfare state and the ability of government to limit it's costs. If the point of keeping rug prohibition is to enforce criminal punishments against those who would cost system more money, why can't this logic be extended to any other activity that could cost taxpayers money? This is a good argument against public health care. It's not a good argument for drug prohibition.

Finally, I'd like to respond to those who would defend police militarization and the use of SWAT tactics on non-violent offenders, to those who accept the current state of the war on drugs and refer to sort of dog-killing raids I linked to last post as "isolated incidents."

One commenter in the Stossel column notes that one failure in thousands of raids should be seen as an effective program. But the problem is, we don't know how effective these tactics are because most communities, states, and the federal government don't keep records on their use and the information just isn't available to the public. For those of us who follow such things, what we do know is that botched raids of all sorts are more common than once in thousands. What we need is accountability for the sorts of tactics used by law enforcement, an idea that should hardly be controversial.

And a better question than the percentage of successful versus unsuccessful raids would be the number of these sorts of raids where no weapons are found versus the number of raids where weapons are found. Defending the status quo in this regard is to defend the right of police to have no accountability whatsoever, yet this is precisely what some drug warriors defend.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cops and Dogs

Take a moment to read Radley Balko's latest post on Reason, Cop vs. Dog and take the time to watch the Youtube clips.

Sort of like the drug warn in general, the more these stories come up, the fewer responses I see from "law and order" conservatives. Now, some of these "law and order" conservatives aren't really what I would call conservatives at all (I'm thinking in particular of Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff, who for all his public statements never seems to make a point of stressing limited government), but there are conservatives out there who toe the limited government line, but remain reflexively pro-police and pro-military. This is not to go off into any sort of discussion about support for our troops (or support for law enforcement), but only to point out there's a logical gap between reflexive rejection of bureaucracy and big government and reflexive support of the actions of the police and the military. All of the reasons why big government fails should apply as equally to the police and military as it does to the EPA and the public schools.

The real mistake is to take questions about policy as attacks on individuals, and this is equally true when we're talking about cops, teachers, or environmental regulators. There are good ones and bad ones, but the good and bad individuals are besides the point when we're talking about policy. But just as many on the left tend to put on their blinders when it comes to the regulations we must obviously need, many folks on the right put on just as strong blinders in regards to the actions of police. Case-in-point the issue of cops shooting dogs, which goes hand-in-hand with the police militarization and misuse of SWAT-teams issue, both of which have been covered in great detail by Reason's Radley Balko. The response from the law and order types to these sorts of situations are almost universally either 1- tragic mistakes and 2-bad cops. And as I was getting at, these characterizations are completely missing the point. As Balco points out, why do postal workers have training on dealing with dogs in the course of their work, while police officers do not? This sort of question is not about villainizing the police as an institution or villainizing individual police officers. It's about the accountability we demand as citizens from our public servants, which is precisely what the police are.

The police as an institution have grown insular and immune from any outside criticisms and ideas precisely because they have been fetishized to an extent by some on the right. Cops shooting dogs unnecessarily is a problem and Balko has demonstrated time and time again that such incidents happen often enough to be considered more than isolated incidents. Again, the larger, libertarian point is that law enforcement should be as responsive to the public as any other facet of government if not more so.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Bailout By Any Other Name

Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein want us to rethink the use of the word "bailout" in public discourse, reserving the word for situations when the federal government bails out companies suffering from their own mismanagement and poor financial decisions. Here's Ezra:

Like Matt, I've heard pretty much every policy people don't like referred to as a bailout. Money to pay teachers is called a bailout. Monetary stimulus is called a bailout. Paying our IMF dues while the IMF makes a loan to Greece is called a bailout.

For one thing, we need a better definition of a bailout. I'd say it's something like "putting public money into a firm that's insolvent because of poor business decisions." Conversely, putting money into South Carolina's schools to blunt the cuts required by plummeting tax revenue caused by a financial-sector crisis isn't a bailout. You may think it's good or bad policy, but it's not a response to epic mismanagement on South Carolina's part.

He's right, to an extent. Stimulus isn't a bailout but a monstrosity of another variety. And paying IMF dues, is, well, paying IMF dues. But sending money to cash-strapped states to avoid teacher layoffs? In my book I'd call that a bailout. Whether or not South Carolina was mismanaged as badly as say, California, is besides the point. I'm opposed to bailouts because of the costs and the disincentives, not because I'm worried about rewarding people who did wrong. Given how the economy functions as an organic whole, I'm not sure how you judge who's in trouble due to mismanagement and who's just a victim of the lousy economy. And I certainly don't want to leave federal government in the position of bailout judge, giving "non-bailout cash" to states or companies judged to be not at fault, while denying bailouts to those guilty of mismanagement.

You can narrow the definition of bailout based upon the actions of those receiving federal money or you can craft a definition of bailout based simply upon the actions of the federal government. I'd go with the latter because it's simpler and just makes more sense. It should still be considered a bailout whether the administration is acting to help a crooked corporate buddy or save American jobs. And from a liberal perspective of the public good, we need our public school teachers regardless of why the state can't afford to pay them all.

The End (of Lost) part II

In ending the way it did, Lost has left us with hundreds, probably thousands of unanswered questions, some more relevant than others. What I'd like to focus on here are questions relevant to the story: Plot or character threads that were never thoroughly explained and mysteries which relate to major plot points. There are plenty of stories we would have loved to get, but ultimately aren't all that important. For instance, remember that glass eye found at the Arrow where the Tailies were holing up? It would have been neat to find out where it came from, but chalk that up to creepiness and stories we just never got to.

What I've done is divide these leftover questions into two categories: Questions where we can infer answers and questions that, on further review, still leave us frustrated. Comments as always are appreciated, particularly any questions I may have forgotten.

Questions Where We Can Infer Answers

* Walt

I know a lot of people disagree with me on this one, but as much as I would have liked to see more, I think we did get all the essential elements of the Walt mystery. To put it simply, he had psychic powers and the Others were interested in him for precisely that reason. And even though they were interested in him, they were willing to let him go to get Ben back. The question of Walt's "specialness" leads into any number of unanswered questions about the Others, but in terms of Walt the character, I'm reasonably satisfied.

* Daniel Faraday crying

I bring this one up because I've mentioned it before. And while I was really hoping we'd see more about this, perhaps we can chalk it up quite simply to Daniel's time travel experiments. I'd always wondered whether he had some foreknowledge of the future that would explain the crying, but they chose not to do more with Faraday- including explaining what he was doing for three years at Dharma headquarters in Michigan- and I can live with it.

* Why can't babies be born on the island?

In listening to other reactions to the end of Lost, I'm reminded that some people forget the details. I've heard people confused as to how Jacob and MIB could have been born and people who think Aaron's birth on the island was special. But Juliet explained it all in season three. Something happens during pregnancy (in the second trimester I think?) to the babies of women who conceive on the island. Aaron was fine because Claire was 8 months or so pregnant when she got to the island. Sun's baby was specifically in danger because Sun conceived on the island. And season five had Juliet assisting in the birth of Horace and Amy's son, Ethan. The implication- I'm fairly sure- was that babies good in fact be born on the island in 1977, seeing as it's unlikely Horace and Amy were off the island for any significant time. My theory, one that we obviously can't confirm, is that the detonation of Jughead somehow caused the pregnancy problems on the island. It makes sense on the timeline and it makes sense as far as the story arc for Juliet: that she created the very circumstances that led her to the island in the first place. I would have liked to see some resolution, particularly for Juliet's sake, but I'm reasonably happy with the explanation I've outlined.

* How did Claire's mother get better?

This is one of those questions that came to me as I re-watched season 3 and saw the Claire episode where Claire's flashback involves her mother in a coma, years after a serious accident. The season 4 finale then introduces us again to Claire's mother, out of the coma and attending Christian's funeral after the return of the Oceanic 6. I got really worked up about this when I made the realization leading up to season six and was convinced that either 1- Jacob had healed her or 2- She was an impostor manipulating the Oceanic 6 to return to the island. Neither theory played out and I think we can rely on the character's explanation: that she was very ill and then she got better. I'm undecided as to whether or not this is lousy writing. On one hand, it's like they wrote the scene after the fact and had to lamely cover their asses, but on the other hand, it would be one of the other ironies of Lost if Claire's mother were to recover soon after her daughter disappears. But in either case, this is a prime example of how Lost worked, for better or for worse. Because of all the connections between characters, all of the mysteries with exciting answers, Lost fans struggled to connect the dots with every little bit of information we were given. In any other show you'd just leave it as is, chalking it up to either lousy writing or perhaps a focus on themes before plot, but with Lost we just couldn't leave these things alone.

* Who was trying to kill Sayid at the beginning of Season 5?

Remember the end of season four and beginning of season five when Sayid shot the man outside the mental hospital and killed three or four more assassin types who were seemingly out to get him and his Oceanic friends? There was so much that went on off-island that I had hoped we'd return to it, at least briefly. The biggest question of course, was why all those assassin types were after Sayid (and why that one in the hospital had Kate's address)? The simplest explanation here is probably our best bet: It was directly to related to all the killing Sayid had done for Ben, perhaps just direct retribution from some Widmore related group. There's more to this story in terms of Ben and Widmore, but as far as all the action we saw, I think we can chalk it up to Sayid having brought it upon himself.

* Sayid, Claire, Dogen, the Sickness, and Good and Evil

Hopefully you get the point with all the descriptors above. I was going to put this down below as an unhappy mystery, but as I hashed it out, it occurred to me that we may have actually gotten a lot more answers than it may have seemed on the surface. I had been very disappointed as to the nature of Sayid and Claire's journey over the final season, but my reaction has softened a bit, perhaps because their journeys play into the theme I've mentioned before where all our characters are acting on incomplete information and imbibing the unknowable mysteries of the island with their own values and interpretations. And this perhaps is why we get this very Eastern sort of explanation about good and evil from Dogen in regards to Claire and Sayid. In terms of Sayid, we get that it was expected that the temple spring would heal him. But what we don't get is any explanation of why the Others tried to drown Sayid after the water turned dirty nor there explanation of what actually happened to him. And in terms of Claire, I never get a good sense of why the Others say she's been infected with darkness, other than the fact that she's with Smokey.

I had been upset about the lack of context and the open-ended question of whether Sayid's redemption a matter of his overcoming something that had happened to him or his overcoming what he had done to himself. But in looking at this plot thread at a deeper level, I think Hurley may have provided that answer to us in the finale when he quite directly points out that Sayid needs to stop letting other people tell him just who he is. It's an unorthodox way to address the island plot, certainly, but it's effective in revealing the writers intentions. It's not neat and tidy, but I can certainly buy it: Sayid and Claire weren't sick and weren't infected, those explanations were just the Others way of providing some clarity to their circumstances.

As I go through these questions, I'm beginning to wonder how many of these unanswered questions actually have these ambiguous, more round about answers. That doesn't mean you have to be satisfied, but on some level it represents a conscious decision on the writers part rather than something that just fell by the wayside.

* What were the rules?

I was going to include this as a question I was unhappy with, but I think the scene with Jacob and MIB playing the game in Across the Sea was the writers way of answering the question about the rules. Rules are ultimately human constructs and they don't transcend our characters in any way, shape, or form. I was unsatisfied with Ben hasty dispatch of Widmore, but I think it was meant to show us that the rules supposedly keeping Ben from killing Widmore didn't literally keep Ben from physically killing Widmore. I understand this is not going to be satisfying for a lot of people: It leaves open the question of whether or not MIB was actually bound by these rules or whether he could have just killed Jacob and the candidates. But as far as plot goes, I think we can come up with the rules that were relevant and when they were and weren't followed. We don't get a deeper meaning or explanation, but that's just like a lot of the ambiguity in Lost.

Questions That Needed More

* Sawyer and company being chased and shot at during the outrigger chase in season five.

Ultimately not an important question, but I'm holding the writers to a higher standard when it comes to a moment so close to the end. Everything else during the time flashes paid off, so it's just odd they never returned to that chase either later in season five or in season six. I've read that Damon and Carlton planned to come back to the chase in season six, but it never really fit in to the story they were telling. I could live with that, except for the fact that half of the season was spent sitting around on the beach. It could have been worked in and I think even cheap would have been better than not at all.

* Did the Others know about the Swan and the button?

In season three there's a scene with Ben and Juliet at the Pearl station, watching Jack and company in the Swan hatch. Given that we know the Others occupied these old Dharma stations, the question arises, why did they allow Desmond (and Kelvin and Radsinky before him) to push the button in that hatch. It doesn't seem that they gave any importance to it- Ben certainly doesn't put any value on it while he's kept prisoner in the hatch- but if that was the case, why let Desmond stay there? I've got no good answers here and this plays into my other questions about the Swan hatch: How did the protocol get started and how did it continue after the purge? More on that in a bit.

* What's up with Eloise Hawking

In the finale, we finally get a hint as to the limits of Eloise's all-knowingness when she begs Desmond not to take Daniel with him. It seems to me like her conversation with Desmond represented either an unawareness of what the sideways was or an unwillingness to accept what it meant. Either way, as a women of science, neither she (or her so with the scientific mind) were ready to move on. But to return to the standard timeline, why was Eloise so all-knowing? The standard explanation since last season has been Daniel's diary, but that diary provides no context for her first appearance in season three, when she tells Desmond he doesn't buy Penny an engagement ring. How would she have so much knowledge at that point in time, about Desmond and his particular situation? And how would she know that a particular man with red shoes was destined to be killed and intervening would only lead to some form of course correction down the road? My theory had always been that Eloise was somehow exposed to the same electromagnetism that Desmond was exposed to and that she had somehow honed the same flashes of the future Desmond has experienced into a useful tool. But that's far too much supposition without any hint of an explanation.

* Christian Shephard ... What the fuck?

I've been bouncing back and forth on this one and ultimately, I'm not happy. Smokey told us that he was Christian, or at least the Christian who led Jack to the caves and to water early in the first season. Assuming that's the truth, I still don't buy Smokey as every other incarnation of Christian we've seen. He certainly was not the Christian on the boat, telling Michael he could go. I have trouble believing he was the Christian down the well, hundreds of years in the past, telling Locke to fix the donkey wheel, but unable to help him up. And I'm just not sure about the Christian we see in "Jacob's cabin." I can see the setup in which that Christian was supposed to be Smokey, but that just creates more questions about the whys. I can see why Smokey would want Locke to turn that wheel if he was the one that created it (maybe he thought it would get him off the island), but I can't figure out why he zombie marched Claire away from her baby and her friends. We know what Smokey's game was in season 5- to manipulate Ben into killing Jacob- but I can't really see how having Ben or Locke turn that wheel gets him to that point where Ben returns Locke's body back to the island. (And yes, that's what actually happened, but if Smokey had no power off the island and couldn't leave, it would be a rater ridiculous plan to send your pawns away in hopes they'd return at the right time.)

I don't mind a lot of the vague stuff with Christian- the fact that we saw his coffin empty on the island and empty yet again in the flash sideways is intriguing to say the least. But those events at the end of season four drove the final two seasons of the show and to not fully understand them leaves a big hole in the story. Forces drove our characters to take certain drastic actions and it would be nice to know why. If the Christian in Jacob's cabin was Smokey, I'd like to know what exactly he was scheming at that point and if that Christian wasn't Smokey, but was some sort of manifestation of the island, I'd be happy just knowing that this was in fact the island protecting itself and not our characters being manipulated for selfish reasons.

* In the same vein as above, what was the deal with Jacob's cabin?

We're given vague hints (by Ilana's group in the season five finale) that Jacob hadn't been there in a long time. The implication there was that Jacob was there once, but that Smokey had somehow been there since then. So why did Ben take Locke there if Ben thought he was just pulling one over on Locke? Who's voice did Locke hear? Who's eye did Hurley see and why did he see Christian in a rocking chair and then a creepy eye? Why did Horace "build" the cabin? And what was the deal with the ashes surrounding the cabin and the fact that Hurley may have broken that ash circle in season four. Ultimately none of it is all that important, but there's a lot there and it all leads up to that big season four finale moment. As I've always said, you don't need to explain everything about the island, but that's a lot to leave unanswered as far as the powers on the island we did get to know, Jacob and MIB. Mysteries are one thing, but to have our characters in such a fog as to what was MIB, what was Jacob, and what was something else is frustrating precisely because we did learn so much about Jacob and MIB. It's just too much of a jumbled mess for my liking and I can't come up with a coherent explanation for it all.

(And one more point, as I'm coming back to this after the fact. Remember Locke's dream of Horace cutting down the same tree, over and over again, to build the cabin. We see Locke wake up, so we know that was in fact a dream and not a vision of the MIB. Assuming these weird dreams relate to the island, that tells me that the island was pushing Locke toward the cabin. As I've been saying, there's still far too much ambiguity for such an important event.

* Why did Juliet, Miles, Charlotte, Daniel, and the rest of the Oceanic survivors flash through time, but Claire and all of the Others did not?

I remember last season I was hoping there'd be an explanation as to why Sun stayed in 2007, while Jack, Kate, Hurley, and Sayid all flashed back to 1977. The explanation we got was an unexpected side effect of the failure to recreate Oceanic 815. In reality, that little bit of plot was mostly about keeping Sun and Jin apart, but I bought it. What I don't buy is the lack of real explanations as to why some characters flashed through time while others did not when Ben first turned the wheel. We see Locke, supposedly the new leader of the Others, flash away right in front of Richard and the other Others who remain in 2004. Juliet, the former Other, flashes away with the Losties on the beach. And Claire, off in Christian's cabin, remains in 2004. I don't have a problem with the idea that some characters would flash and others would not, but it's a bit too convenient for there to be no explanation.

* Why did the Dharma food drops continue and what happened with Dharma after the purge?

In season two, a pallet of food and supplies is dropped from the sky in the middle of the night as Locke and Ben experience a lockdown in the Swan hatch. The implication is that the lockdown occurred to keep the Swan residents oblivious to the supplies being dropped. But the question remains as to who was dropping the supplies so long after the end of Dharma? One very good idea I just heard today was that Dharma had contracted with some mysterious company to make and deliver those supplies and that company had continued to fufill it's end of the agreement long after Dharma was gone. The other theory, possibly related, was that Ben and some of the Others (Mikhail at the Flame maybe) had maintained the illusion that Dharma remained on the island.

The truth is, we lose track of the Dharma story after 1977. With the evacuation that went on prior to the Incident, perhaps families never returned to the island and the Dharma Initiative of the 1980's was a shadow of it's former self. But the point is we don't know. We don't know how and when Kelvin was recruited to the Swan station. We don't know how Eloise Hawking came to reside in the Lampost station in Los Angeles. Ultimately, a lot of this is tangential to our story, but Dharma was such a big part of this story. We get the Black Rock but we don't get all of this?

* Why does Richard tell Sun "I watched them all die" in regards to all the 1970's Losties?

In the season five episode "Follow the Leader" Richard tells Sun that he watched her husband and all the other Losties in the 1970's die. It was a neat little moment, but like the outrigger shoot out, it was a piece of dramatic tension that was never followed up on. I had a really simple theory that Richard was there for the Incident, perhaps observing from a distance and he saw our Losties disappear in the midst of Jughead's explosion. It fits perfectly well, but to not return to it at all is a bit of a cheat. It's one thing for plot points to be left vague, but another for a key dramatic moment to never be resolved.

* Why did Bram (Ilana's "shadow of the statue" companion) try and recruit Miles? And who the hell were they in the first place?

I'm noticing a theme here as I go through these questions. Some of the more major questions I thought were troublesome have answers and resolutions embedded within the story, while most of these questions I'm ultimately unhappy with don't have good answers because the events that raised the question in the first place were typically pure plot. Take this little one here. I'm never clear on why Miles needed to be recruited, when none of our other characters were ever approached. And why was Miles being recruited in 2004 when the Shadow of the Statue folks didn't go to the island until 2007. Maybe not a big deal, but who were these off-island Jacob disciples and how were they connected with the on-island Others. It's an answer we neevr had the chance to get when the dynamite blew up Ilana, but it's just sort of depressing that you had all these characters waiting for years to go to the island and serve Jacob only to be killed by Smokey days after they arrived.

* Where did Anthony Cooper come from?

This one bugs me, I think because of all Ben's talk about the magic box. Yes, I know the magic box was supposed to be a metaphor, but bring up the mystical makes me wonder how Anthony Cooper got to the island, especially since he tells Locke the last thing he remembers is getting into a terrible car accident. I suppose the obvious answer is that Ben arranged to bring Cooper to the island, but I just feel like that one was teased too much the other way for there to be no specific resolution.

* The temple Others versus Ben's Others

One frustrating aspect of the end of Lost was that manner in which the Otehrs were wiped out by Smokey in order to make room for the Jacob/MIB story. Suddenly, the Others who's existence was about serving Jacob were rendered peripheral. It doesn't matter to most of our major characters, except for the fact that Ben, Richard, and Juliet were all Others, and Dogen was this big funky mystery who was killed off before he could be explained. There's a huge difference between explaining a mystery unique to the island and the mysteries to a group of people that played such an integral role of so many of our characters lives. I've complained about Dharma above, but ultimately, we learned a lot more about Dharma then we did about the Others.

There's a line in season five's Jughead when Richard tells Locke that the Others have a very specific process for selecting their leadership. Yet that's never explained and we're left with only the vague hints relating to patricide we see in season three. Additionally, how did Ben's (and before him Widmore, and Eloise) role as leader actually work? I have trouble imagining Dogen as a character who would take orders from Ben, so what was the relationship between the temple Others and the Others living in Dharmaville?

I do think we get a lot from the Richard back story: these are the islands defenders serving Jacob, but how is it that so many of the Others were so fanatical in their beliefs? How is it that Cindy and the kids were kidnapped from the tail section and became such obedient Others? Some of it- like how did Jacob recruit Mikhail to come to the island- is pure curiosity, but there are far too many unanswered questions directly related to the story and our characters.

How did Ben know about the donkey wheel?

This relates to the last unanswered question and represents the other side of the theme that I do find satisfying. I like the idea that each and every character, Jacob and MIB included, don't know any more about the secrets of the island than the rest of us. I liked how in season six, Ben and Richard, who had been such all-knowing characters were basically cut down to size. The other side of this coin is that we never actually get their entire stories. Yes we understand where they come from as characters, but we don't see where they come from as far as driving the plot. Ben has the line in the penultimate episode where he realizes that perhaps the smoke monster had been summoning him, rather than the other way around. It's a neat wrap up for his character but it doesn't explain how and what Ben actually knew as leader of the Others. What did he think the smoke monster was and how did he discover all those passageways below Dharmaville? How did he learn about the wheel and how did he know it would move the island? Why did he say it was dangerous and a measure of last resort?

If you notice a theme here, it's that I loved the season four finale and really think it was a high point of the show, but I'm disappointed that no explanations are given for all the events that set the stage for the final two seasons. If Ben is supposed to be our character, we shouldn't be left with all these unanswered questions about his actions.

* Charles Widmore

I mentioned above that I was coming to terms with Widmore's shocking and sudden death, but that doesn't mean I'm happy with his story. Widmore's line that he came to the island on Jacob's behalf after Jacob convinced him of the error of his ways is a convenient explanation for his actions in season six, but it doesn't explain what he was doing in season four with the mercenaries on the freighter and what his role was in season five when he helps out Locke. My impression was that whatever Widmore was trying to do season four did involve his taking the island for his own selfish reasons, but it's disappointing to never see that hashed out. And it plays right into Ben's actions in the season four finale: Was Ben really saving the island from Widmore? I really like to think yes, but the lack of a complete story on Widmore's part leaves that up in the air.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Five Years And A Brief Question

I meant to get this up yesterday, but ran out of time as the day got away from me. But yesterday, June 8th, was the five year anniversary of this blog. I started up at the end of my first year of law school and five years is longer than I've done just about anything in my life.

It's interesting to see the changes in tone and the evolution of my political philosophy over these past five years. Most of my positions have remained similar, but my focus has become more and more about individuals and the effect of the law on individuals, for better or for worse. I've gotten away from much of my post 9-11 reactionary foreign policy blogging because none of it seems cut and dry and I'm not sure what to think any more. I was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq and I haven't backtracked from my viewpoint that the war was morally justifiable, but I've spent much of the last four years questioning the cost and the necessity. But much as it's difficult to assess the working of big government on the domestic front, it's even more difficult to make sweeping judgments in the area of foreign policy and I've basically just stopped trying.

It's much easier to look to people, to look to individuals, which is why I've leaned more and more libertarian on the civil libertarian front and perhaps why I've grown more and more liberaltarian on the social welfare front. Which brings me to my question: If libertarians are all selfish, what would that make a libertarian who believes in social welfare and support for the poor, but also in reducing the size of government and scrapping the regulatory state?

Since I've started this blog, I've seen more and more of these sort of viewpoints being expressed and I've yet to see anyone other than libertarian purists denounce this line of thought. In the health care debate I saw this line of reasoning from some libertarians and conservatives, basically making the point that we could help the poor and needy without a massive government controlled health care system. And again, it's an argument that's never taken seriously by the left. What's interesting is the ways in which the health care debate (and some of these other discussions as to the role of government) has placed many on the left in the position of first and foremost defending the role of government and not as an advocate for the poor and the oppressed.

The problem is, opposition to any concept of a social safety net has been part of the rhetoric of libertarian circles and the free market right for decades now and looking back, it may represent the movement's biggest mistake. One need only look to the Clinton-era welfare reforms to see the popularity of anti-welfare rhetoric. So while there was some successes in battling the expansion of the welfare state, the regulatory state grew and grew and grew, giving us the unsustainable government we have today. Changing popular opinion in a more liberaltarian direction is possible, but it does involve changing attitudes, about the poor and about government in general. But the biggest argument to move in such a direction is the ridiculousness of the debate over welfare spending, which amounts to such a small percentage of government budgets at all levels. It takes more than a few undeserved welfare recipients to equal out the salary of an undeserved six-figure federal employee (and how many of those are there?) But ultimately, if our concern is the size and scope of government we should worry more and more about what government does before worrying about money going to the poor.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Just A Little Bit On Health Care

I've got the other half of my end of Lost post kicking around, along with a couple of other "big" topics, but while I finish those up I wanted to send me readers in the direction of Reason's Peter Suderman, who's done a wonderful job of covering many of the effects of Obamacare for Reason's Hit and Run. Today's first post hits on the administration's plans for keeping down health insurance costs in private markets: Sending nasty letters to insurance companies, strongly encouraging them to keep prices low and service levels high in the face of escalating health care costs. Today's second post relays the story of a Virginia "consumer-driven" health insurance start-up, put out of business by the regulatory uncertainties of Obamacare.

Just a few points:

1- Regulation of any sort always drives up the cost of doing business and regulatory uncertainty all but ensures that no new competition can enter the market place.

2- If you've paid any attention to the spiraling out of control health care costs in Massachusetts, you've got to see this is where we're headed as a nation. We're headed toward health insurance as a quasi-public utility and that's not good news for consumers. In a way, what we've got is sort of the inverse of what liberals point out as the folly of privatization and deregulation. Markets are wonderfully dynamic things, but putting a private company in charge of a public good does not a market make. Lousy and/or corrupt privatization plans only create the inefficiency of government while taxpayer money goes into someone's pocket. And the more government involvement we get in the health insurance industry, the more you have to wonder what purpose it serves to have private industry making any sort of a profit simply by putting government mandates into effect. If that sounds like an argument for universal health care or a government run system, it is, in a way. And I'm talking off the cuff here, but the problem is that there becomes a point when a heavily regulated industry (or public utility operated as a for-profit business) becomes even less efficient than government. Why? Because at some point, these industries become virtually institutionalized, nearly as protected by law as the government, but less accountable, and retaining a commitment to making a profit.

I know some folks out there think that this was this was the Obama plan all along, to surreptitiously pass universal health care as this supposed private-public partnership failed, but I don't buy such conspiracy theories and would point to a far simpler explanation. It's precisely the same fallacy of central planners that Hayek, Freidman, and countless other economists have been criticizing for decades. Each generation thinks they've learned the mistakes of the past and they can be smarter than the marketplace, but it never works out and you always wind up with the sort of impending disasters we're seeing today.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Student Loans

This weekend's New York Times had a fascinating and personally relatable piece on burgeoning college student loan debt. I say relatable, because my wife and I can relate to six-figure student loan debt. And it's nice to see student loan debt painted in such stark terms. Yes, significant student loan debt can impoverish those with modest salaries and yes, there's no escaping the specter of debt that can not be discharged through bankruptcy. But while the Times piece focuses on minor solutions to this student loan debt crises- mainly more counseling and financial advising- the Times neglects the two biggest problems which have led us down this road: The exploding costs of a college education and social norms that value a college degree at all costs.

Anecdotally, I can say with certainty that the cost of college has gone up drastically. When I graduated high school in 1998, the "expensive" schools were in that $30,000 a year range. Today, the expensive schools are in the $50,000 a year range, which far outpaces the rate of inflation. And at some point you have to wonder how much is too much. Why should the cost of a four year college education be more than the purchase of a starter home? Other than the same bureaucratic over run that's plagued both health care and government spending, I don't have any good ideas as to why college costs have increased so dramatically. But unlike health care and government spending, college students are direct consumers of the product they're buying and they do have all the information at their fingertips to make financially sound decisions. But like Ms. Munna, who's featured in the Times story, young people in America are not making sound decisions in regards to their financial futures.

So why this collective madness? I blame a culture that has elevated college education to a degree that far outweighs and tangible and monetary benefit. High school students are specifically told to dream high and the entire college process is designed to help students attend the most prestigious university possible, not the schools most suited to their particular financial situation. If you think about it, it's a uniquely American situation. We have an egalitarian mindset when it comes to college in general, but our system of funding is anything but egalitarian.

The value of a college education is two-fold, but we tend to fold those ideas right into one another. There's the monetary value of a college education itself and the earning potential one gains from a college education and then there's the intrinsic value of education. One is difficult to calculate and the other is downright impossible, yet we constantly seem to get these two very separate concepts muddled together. Take Ms. Munna, the subject of the Times piece. Generally speaking, there is a lot of value in the prestige of an NYU degree and in the right field, it may be possible to capitalize on that value. But Ms. Munna majored in religious and womens studies, not exactly the springboard to a lucrative career. For folks with money, the intrinsic value of that education might well be worth it. But for someone faced with a lifetime of debt, you've got to ask whether such a person would have been better off studying the same thing at a less expensive state school.

Our system of college education is not egalitarian, but elite universities have a vested interest in maintaining that egalitarian image. Why? Because without it, elite universities wouldn't be elite. They'd have to drastically reduce their size or start letting in rich dummies to make up for the loss of bright middle class students. And remember, it's elitism and success that drives our higher education system. Competition between schools isn't about who can offer the best value, but about who can attract the highest caliber of students. The "value" offered by state universities is really only a result of the flow of state tax dollars and any other schools which try to advertise their value are generally seen as somehow substandard.

The point is there needs to be more encouragement for young people to make sound financial decisions. And of course it's unfair that plenty of poor and middle class students would be unable to attend particular universities, but that's life. You simply can't maintain a system of private universities if student tuition is fully subsidized by the state and there's something inherently wrong with our current system that saddles students with massive student loan debt for the rest of their adult lives. The truth of the Ivy leagues and similarly elite schools is that they've maintained their status through the influx of the non-rich. Whatever images we may have of elite universities as the province of the rich would simply not be true if all the bright poor and middle class students chose to go somewhere else. And that's why we need to change attitudes and perceptions. The more successful students that chose inexpensive alternatives, the more elite schools will need to cut costs in order to retain talent and remain elite.