Dynamist Blog


After a lot of broken promises, I've finally started to expand and update my Blogroll, though I still haven't added reader recommendations. (Email me at blog-at-dynamist.com to suggest additions.) Check out the list and visit some new territory.


This general subject has already consumed way too many pixels and way too much ink, but responsible journalism dictates that I return to it. In response to my earlier post about the media rewards to inflammatory political rhetoric, Brendan Nyhan (whose Spinsanity post I cited) wrote:

I was intrigued by your contention that Coulter is mentioned more than Moore in the New York Times and other "[p]owerful liberal voices" -- since it's the kind of claim that can be easily checked using Nexis, I thought I'd do so. (Things many people thought to be true have been proven to be false using this method -- see Geoffrey Nunberg's work on Bernard Goldberg's claim that conservatives are labeled as such more than liberals.) Anyway, checking the past two years for the New York Times, during which time Coulter has had two best-selling books and Moore has had one best-selling book plus an Oscar-winning documentary, I found significantly more mentions of Moore than Coulter - 60+ for Moore and 20+ for Coulter doing a quick count of relevant articles from the search results that excluded bestseller listings, letters to the editor and repeated capsule reviews. The Coulter mentions were generally snide remarks and asides, while Moore's were generally more positive or neutral, but there was significant variation. Hope you'll clarify this for your readers.

One final point: I would argue that Moore is often used in almost exactly the same way by conservative pundits as Coulter is by liberals -- to discredit a group by association.

At the time Brendan and I wrote, my Nexis password was many thousands of miles away from me, so I had to delay a thorough search. (A Nexis search is not, in fact, easy for most people, by the way. Most people do not have access to the subscription-only service.) I was sure about Noam Chomsky, whom I also mentioned, because I'd once done a Nexis search to see how the Times identifies him, discovering that they scrupulously ignore him, mentioning him occasionally as a linguist. He may be the left's version of the John Birch Society and the black-helicopter crowd, but pretending he doesn't exist creates a false picture of his influence.

First let me say that I agree with Brendan's final point. His charge is certainly true, and the practice is unjustified. Aside from Moore's essential status as an entertainer rather than an intellectual--Coulter tries to have it both ways--he's better described as a leftist than a liberal. But that's a topic for another day.

At the moment, however, conservatives have no media outlets that approach the cultural significance of the Times or that act as similar gatekeepers in the public discussion. (Classical liberals like me have next to none, but our social liberalism makes us more comfortable with, and less disconcerting to, liberal places like the Times.) The Times example is the core of the argument.

A simple Nexis count--I went back a year--does show exactly what Brendan says: more mentions of Moore than Coulter. But almost all of those mentions occur because of a) Moore's Oscar and b) Moore's speech at the Oscar ceremony, and some of the others are celebrity gossip items. None of them discuss his books or his ideas, nor do they hold him up as an exemplar of left-of-center thinking. Indeed, writing in the Times Magazine, James Traub declares, "Put Michael Moore behind a desk, and watch the right-wingers squeal. The problem is that many Democrats would squirm as well. It is just a fact that the Republicans are now the party of passionate convictions, while the Democrats are the party of grave reservations."

Traub's column is a lot of humbug. Both parties, and both broadly defined political camps (which is not exactly the same thing), include people of all temperaments and every degree of nuance. The much-derided nasty partisanship in Washington comes in part from the clash of the two parties' passionate wings, acting through their more pragmatic political representatives.

That said, I think I was indeed a bit unfair to the Times. A newspaper is not a monolith, and many Times writers understand that Moore and Coulter are intellectually lightweight entertainers who represent only themselves and the delighted fans of provocation.

The most serious treatment of Moore is a Frank Rich piece that portrays him as a wildly successful entertainer whose political grenades sell more movie tickets. "In America, at least, all is fair not only in love and war but also in entertainment. If Mr. Moore forgets his pact with the audience and makes a habit of preaching as he did on Oscar night, he might as well seal his own mouth with duct tape. But if he ambushes America with humor 16 months from now, he may be more of a factor in the next election cycle than all the other, more glamorous Oscar attendees now lining up at fund-raisers for Howard Dean."

As for Coulter, the official Times position, if such a thing existed, would be something like that expressed in the July 20 style section profile titled Blond Lightning on the Far Right: "She has been fired by MSNBC more times than George Steinbrenner canned Billy Martin, and she has come to grips with life as a single girl, personally and professionally, endlessly peddling her Lethally Blond franchise to a reluctant media that finds her reprehensible, but not resistible."

Could we now go back to talking about something more interesting?


In a recent Volokh Conspiracy post, Tyler Cowen wrote something about Richard Epstein's latest book that "scared" Matt Yglesias, appalled Matt's readers, and puzzled me. The money quote:

More generally, I think Richard's genius is to see/assert/argue that various problems in ethical and political philosophy are in fact best thought of as legal issues. I'm never sure if Richard, the consummate lawyer, is aware how revolutionary he is in this regard. The idea of reducing much of philosophy to law is shocking, if you think about it (well, it is shocking for us non-lawyers!), and it is one reason why he outrages some of his readers.

I know Richard, have read most of his books (but not his latest, which I recently bought), and have talked with him about his general project. Never have I concluded that he's trying to reduce ethical problems to law. I'd say he's trying to develop a consequentialist ethics and apply it to law. I'd also say that he believes that human beings have, through trial and error, discovered ethical ways to live and embodied them in the kinds of dispute-resolution rules expressed in common law.

But I decided to ask the man himself what he thought of Tyler's description of his work. Here is his response:

Obviously, praise is nice for a book that does not seem to have gotten all that much attention thus far. But I would put my stance somewhat differently. I don't worry much about the boundaries between disciplines. I only worry about arguments that seem to cohere on a given theme. The number of philosophers who have invented well established legal rules is very large; e.g. Ross and Nozick in recent times; Hume, Locke, Kant etc. Most of them are not first class lawyers so that they miss some key points about the issues in question. All I do is try to show how if you know the legal arguments well you can avoid the pitfalls and iron out the anomalies. The point here is to be sure that technical skill in law is brought to bear on problems that invite abstract speculation by folks who do not understand the infrastructure. Call it the academic principle of comparative advantage.

To draw your own conclusions, here are links to the trilogy that defines Richard's general philosophical project:

Skepticism and Freedom, his latest
Principles for a Free Society
Simple Rules for a Complex World

The books are not easy reading, but neither do they require a law degree.


Glenn Reynolds and others (abundant links at InstaPundit) have been writing about the controversy over Pentagon funding for a futures market to predict terrorist attacks. There's a bigger context here, which was ably explained in a column by my Economic Scene colleague Hal Varian, based on a paper by GMU's Robin Hanson titled, "Shall We Vote on Values, but Bet on Beliefs?" If you're interested in this controversy, the column is a must-read.


tsos.jpgI'm delighted to report that The Substance of Style has received an excellent (both positive and accurate) review in Publishers Weekly. You can read it on the book's Amazon page. Amazon has also posted abbreviated versions of the cover blurbs, which are available in their fuller versions here.


Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Jacob Levy suggests that I should be pleased that NPR, in conjunction with Slate, has launched a lunchtime show that breaks the East Coast pundit monopoly. I am, in theory (though Slate is as Bos-Wash as the West Coast gets). I'd be more pleased if the show's website knew those pundits' names. It's Karen Grigsby Bates. Gates is a guy somehow connected to Slate.

But wait, there's more: Over on this page, they promise interviews from the famous L.A.-based blogger Mikey Kaus. They also spell Will Saletan's last name as Salatan.


Andrew Sullivan thinks evangelical Protestant are bad news, because they say their faith informs their political choices. (If asked, they'd probably say their faith informs their business decisions and their choice of music.) But evangelicals don't have an apparatus like this, they don't equate marriage with procreation (although they support the raising of children within traditional families--a subtle, but important, distinction), their religious traditions grew up assuming that their churches would have no direct secular power, and they have essentially no presence in the intellectual organs that influence the political debates. Andrew's problems are not primarily with evangelical Protestants.


Reader Mitch Berkson calls my attention to this ingenious approach to encouraging organ donation and, as he puts it, to an article "describing the (predictable) opposition."


In a National Journal feature titled "The Accidental Radical," Jonathan Rauch offers a concise but comprehensive overview of George W. Bush's record, programs, and philosophy: "The point of this article is not to predict failure for George W. Bush, much less to wish it. The point is to dramatize the stakes he is playing for. He is risking his presidency, his nation's fiscal and geopolitical strength, and the conservative movement. If he wins, he is FDR. If he loses, he is LBJ."

The article is a must-read (thanks to Rick Henderson, scourge of the Nevada Supreme Court, for the pointer), in part because it includes important initiatives that many pundits miss. It also points to a coherent, though not necessarily sound, idea underlying Bush's domestic programs:

Bush's view, expressed in his book and in the 2000 campaign, is that government curtails freedom not by being large or active but by making choices that should be left to the people. Without freedom of choice, people feel no responsibility, and Bush insists again and again, as he put it in the book: "I want to usher in a responsibility era." If one way to give people more choices is to shrink government, fine. But if another way is to reform government -- also fine. And if he needs to expand government to deliver more choices -- well, he can live with that. For Bush, individual responsibility and Big Government are not necessarily opposed to each other, any more than global stability and regime change are necessarily opposites.

And Jonathan points to an important, and Reaganesque shift, in foreign policy:

Underlying all of Bush's foreign-policy departures is a little-noted shift that may be the most fundamental of the bunch. Unlike foreign-policy realists (including his father), Bush does not believe that states should be regarded as legitimate just because they are stable and can be dealt with. And unlike internationalists (including his predecessor), he does not believe that states should be regarded as legitimate just because they are internationally recognized. He believes that legitimacy comes only from popular sovereignty and civilized behavior.

If this shift becomes consistent policy, Our Good Friends the Saudis are in (justified) trouble.


This decidedly non-edgy Dallas Morning News feature on gay unions has a very Dallas feel, including the concluding section on a mother's entrepreneurial venture:

Until recently, there were few wedding resources for same-sex couples--but that is beginning to change, says Gretchen Hamm of Dallas, founder of the Internet sites TwoBrides.com and TwoGrooms.com. Her slogan is: "A mother-approved shopping site for alternative weddings."

Mrs. Hamm began her business three years ago, when daughter Katherine Hamm (a Greenhill graduate and women's soccer standout at Princeton) began planning her own commitment ceremony with her partner.

"I couldn't find things that were appropriate for them, such as photo albums or wedding-cake toppers," Mrs. Hamm says. So she began tracking down resources and reference materials, such as planning guides and decorative accessories, that would be useful for same-sex couples....

Mrs. Hamm even managed to find one manufacturer who made cake toppers portraying lesbian couples in "butch"; or "femme" wedding mode. Aside from such unconventional touches, however, Mrs. Hamm says, "Most of the gay or lesbian ceremonies I hear about are pretty conservative and traditional, actually."...

[M]ost of Mrs. Hamm's advice, she says, would be no different if her clients were a straight couple. "I always tell them," she says, "to get their reception site nailed down right away."

Ultimately, this sort of standard-issue "women's pages" feature will have a greater effect on public attitudes than whatever appears on the op-ed page--which isn't to say that some DMN readers won't raise a ruckus. When the paper announced that it would include gay couples in its wedding and engagement announcements, the letters page included plenty of angry subscription cancellations. (One thing I hadn't noticed, because I don't read the DMN wedding pages, is that these announcements are all paid advertising.)

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