Here's Why Not

From Herb Gintis' excellent review of the lately-departed G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism?:

Cohen argues that markets are morally offensive institutions that most people would be happy to get rid of if they could figure out some alternative compatible with the standard of living we are accustomed to in advanced market societies. “The market” says Cohen, “is intrinsically repugnant…Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation.” (pp. 78,82)

In place of the market, Cohen celebrates the caring and voluntary mutual aid that occurs in small groups of friends (he never mentions family), and believes this can be extended to a community of strangers as well. He calls this “communal reciprocity.” (p. 39)

[…]

Rather than lamenting the incompatibility of socialist community and human nature, Cohen faults our meager social technology; there is simply no known machinery for harnessing natural human generosity. He calls this an “insoluble organizational design problem.” “In my view,” he remarks, “the principal problem that faces the socialist ideal is that we do not know how to design the machinery that would make it run.” (p. 55)

I think there are two problems with Cohen's argument. First, there is a reason why we lack the organizational institutions that harness human generosity, and it has to do with a side of human nature that Cohen does not recognize. There is a great deal of heterogeneity among people in the degree to which they privilege the personal, including self and family, over the social. Everyday observation, reinforced by a huge body of empirical evidence—see my book, Bounds of Reason (Princeton, 2009) for details—that unless there are safeguards against the free-rider tendencies of the selfish, the natural tendency for the majority to cooperate will be undermined, and cooperation will unravel. Moreover, the larger the group, the harder it is to identify and punish the free-riders, even though most people are willing to incur personal costs to do so. Markets work because they discipline firms, who then discipline workers, thus solving the free-rider problem. Moreover, markets discipline firms by forcing them to compete and therefore reveal to the public exactly what are the limits of the possible in satisfying consumer needs and using technology efficiently. The knowledge of production possibilities unleashed through market competition cannot be revealed in any other way that we know of.

Gintis' second problem is another good reason also why not.

I've read a good number of Cohen's papers and books. I've always enjoyed them, and I've always come away feeling he has clarified for me the contours of the debate. The great thing about Cohen was how transparently and unabashedly he angled for the result he wanted to get. But he wasn't one to pack the conclusion into his premises, so when he would land short of his longed-for conclusion, you could be pretty certain that's as close as you can get with those particular premises. And you could be pretty sure that if there were some other premises out there both more plausible and more amenable to producing the wanted result, he would have found them and started from there. For many years Cohen was to Anglophone analytic political philosophy something like Ted Kennedy was to American politics: he marked the outer bound of the reasonable left. I think now that contemporary political philosophers have begun to lose their “studied ignorance of standard social and psychological theory, common among philosophers of the mid-Twentieth century,” as Gintis puts it, the bounds are shifting, leaving Cohen's views well past the edge of a receding tide.

Housing, Transportation, and the Politics of Path Dependency

Tyler Cowen says he doesn't take the Metro, even though his home and office are near stations, because there are Metro-inconvenient places in between that he likes to go. Matt Yglesias rightly wonders why libertarians don't complain more about the zoning requirements of suburbs like Tyler's Fairfax. This is an excellent question. I've been long puzzled by the widespread libertarian preference for state-subsidized roads plus building regulations oriented around cars over state-subsidized trains and buses and building regulations oriented around them. Matt writes:

I don’t really understand why it is that this kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother libertarians very much. Bryan Caplan specifically cites America’s large houses and ample parking spaces as the benefits of our free market approach when they are, in fact, the product of systematic regulatory mandates. I think this illustrates the basic tribalism of a lot of our politics. If Fairfax County were considering some kind of hippie-inspired stringent rent control law, we’d be hearing no end of it from blogging George Mason University professors. But given a set of extremely severe land use regulations that happen to antagonize environmentalist and left-wing Europhilic bicycle commuters, suddenly mandatory minimum parking requirements become the essence of capitalism.

What makes this issue so tricky for me is that the status quo pattern of settlement and transportation certainly does reflect systematic regulatory mandates, but it's not clear how worthwhile it is to try to back out of this pattern once it has been established — even if those mandates were stupid. The way we live is indeed very much a function of choices made by government some time ago and reinforced by its ongoing decisions to maintain the established system. I think the case for the proposition that many of these choices were big mistakes — that we'd have an overall better pattern of settlement and transportation had government made different choices — is pretty compelling. Yet it remains that whole cities have formed around the suboptimal status quo system and many tens of millions of people have invested in goods like houses and cars taking for granted the structure of the status quo system.

I suspect defenders of greater density and more public transport overstrain themselves trying to make the implausible case that a transition to their favored alternative would cost most everyone less than maintenance of the status quo, despite the fact that almost everyone has already arranged their lives around the current system. I don't think this kind of path-dependency/status-quo bias/lock-in effect would be insuperable if government would simply stop actively subsidizing people to arrange their lives around the status quo system. It could make people pay directly for using roads; price for congestion; shift incidence of taxes from labor income to carbon use, etc.

But this is hard to do in a democracy, since people tend to want what they've got and feel entitled to the subsidies that support the status quo. If people live the way they do because they're being actively subsidized to live that way, and the government takes the subsidy away, people will feel punished. This sort of thing is why democratic politics (ironically) tends to involve frequent attempts by ideologues to jam policies people don't want down their throats so that they get something new (like it or not!) and eventually come to want it, since people tend to want what they've got. This is what I expect many of the dubious cost-benefit analyses of new train lines, etc. really come to. Pretexts for implementing unpopular and short-run inefficient policies in the hope of reshaping the choices, habits, and preferences of a public unfortunately satisfied with their current crappy mode of living.

The "Menaissance" and Its Dickscontents

This City Journal piece by Kay Hymowitz perfectly exemplifies a time-honored form of conservative argument. It goes something like this: liberal equality is just too confusing!

I think I first saw this kind of argument clearly laid out in Tocqueville. If I remember correctly, he noted that there is a kind of soothing clarity in stratified societies with brightly marked class lines. When classes are stable over generations, and there is little mobility up or down, conventions that govern class relations become settled, making it easy to know how to behave toward those above and below one's station. Moreover, when classes are fixed and mobility is limited, there is little anxiety about improving one's position, since there's so little prospect for doing so. American-style democratic equality creates a pattern of unceasingly stressful striving for relative rank, and all this mobility up and down produces a confusion in manners that can lead to dangerous social frictions and resentments. It becomes too hard to know what to expect of others, or what others expect from us.

This is, as far as I can tell, Hymowitz's argument about gender relations in the post-feminist era. Women attaining something like social equality with men has created not so much liberation as a kind of toxic confusion. When women are free to be individuals, free to want different things than other women, men can't be sure what any particular women might want from him. To open the door for her or not!? To pick up the check or not!? To be a nice guy like she says she wants or a bad boy like she really wants?! These unresolved and unresolvable questions have led inevitably to the contemporary condition in which men are either unlovable whining sad sacks or misogynist assholes who cite a cartoon version of Darwinism to justify treating a woman as little more than an upgrade from Jergens and a sock. If we don't like it, we only have feminism to blame. Or something like that.

Look, the phenomenon Hymowitz describes is real enough. Rapid social change inevitably makes it harder to coordinate expectations. If it is a change worth having, then the pains of adjustment are worth it. Period. That doesn't mean those pains are unimportant. Guys do suffer uncertainty about whether or not to open doors or pick up checks. It really can be frustrating for the sensitive guy to find out he'd be more generally attractive if he learned to be a bit more of a dick.

But annoyances and disappointments suffered in the process of realizing fundamental conditions of a decent society don't call into question the desirability of those conditions. All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn't about delaying adulthood, it's about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.

I think Hymowitz's story gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege. Many men aren't angry and confused because they don't know what women want. They're angry because they want what their fathers or grandfathers had, and they can't get it. They're confused because they can't quite grasp why not. I think part of the fascination for many white guys with the show Mad Men is that it is a window into an attractive (to them) world of white male dominance and privilege that has largely disappeared. It is still possible to create a traditional patriarchal household, but it's harder than ever for men to find women who will happily play along. And, in any case, there is little assurance of the stability of this sort of arrangement, since the social esteem that was once accorded to it — which helped reinforce men's and women's confidence in their traditional roles within it — has largely dissipated.

To my mind, too little attention has been paid to reconsidering ideals of manhood in the age of equality. Since I was a teenager, I've found old-school machismo pathetic and somehow irrelevant to the problem of becoming a man. Without even knowing what or why it was, I was heavily influenced by gay culture, which provided me, and many other straight young men, a wide variety of templates for manhood that are at once unmistakably masculine, playfully ironic, aesthetic, emotionally open, and happily sexual. You can be manly and care about shoes!!! I'll confess that I used to periodically regret my heterosexuality because there seemed to be greater scope for constructing a distinctive and satisfying male identity within gay culture. I think that's telling. And the virulent homophobia that remains in most American dude subcultures has cut most young men off from the possibility of modeling their manhood after any of the delightful variety of types available to the homophile. And that really doesn't leave them with much to work with. Most Americans these days seem happy enough to see women succeed as high-achieving go-getters. And who doesn't love Tim Gunn? But most of us have not yet given up on oppressively restrictive, strongly normative conceptions of hetero masculinity. That, I submit, is what stands in the way of a real, um … renaissance for men.

Guns and Presidents

Megan McArdle makes a number of sensible claims about the non-danger of citizens legally carrying legal firearms at public political gatherings where the president appears. Jason Zengerle accuses her of being both “silly” and “offensive.” He writes:

This is very silly. Look, just on a basic level, the Secret Service's capacities aren't infinite: protecting the president is hard enough in normal circumstances; throw in the job of making sure gun-toting protestors don't have a sight line on the president, and the agents' jobs become that much more difficult. Even if the gun-toting protestors whose rights McArdle is defending pose no harm to Obama, keeping a constant eye on them takes up resources–resources the Secret Service might need to thwart people who do mean to do harm to the president.

No, this is very silly! (See what I did there?) The silliest thing is Zengerle's casual assumption that if the free and peaceful exercise of an enumerated constitutional right “takes up resources,” then the state may therefore limit it. I doubt he'd like to generalize this principle. Of course, the real issue is likely that Zengerle is not impressed with the idea of an individual right to bear arms. So he's untroubled by limiting it on the grounds that it might cost a little money or slightly affect the probability of harm to the president.

Maybe the scenario wouldn't seem so clear-cut to Zengerle if it is redescribed to involve a right he cares about. So suppose that the act of visibly carrying a firearm is intended as an act of political expression asserting the legitimacy of the right to do so and challenging social norms that stigmatize and stifle the exercise of this legitimate right. I take it that this was in fact the intention of the “Tree of Liberty” dude. Or maybe it's no problem to limit disagreeable political expression as long as allowing it would impose an extra burden on the Secret Service?

Here's another (sure-to-be-unpopular) thought. Zengerle also seems to assume that efforts to protect the safety of the president do not already consume too many resources. The significance of the presidential role no doubt merits an uptick in the usual amount taxpayers ought to be willing to fork over to preserve each of a 48 year old's expected remaining quality-adjusted life years. But there are limits. In a recent provocatively rational paper, Swiss economist Bruno Frey, acting as a sort of one-man politician death panel, argues that:

[P]oliticians are overprotected. The costs of political assassination differ systematically depending on whether a private or a public point of view is taken. A politician attributes a very high (if not infinite) cost to his or her survival. The social cost of political assassination is much smaller as politicians are replaceable. Conversely, the private cost of the security measures is low for politicians, its bulk – including time loss and inconvenience – is imposed on taxpayers and the general public. The extent of overprotection is larger in dictatorial than in democratic countries.

The challenge that Frey poses to Zengerle is this: Even if it could be shown that citizens legally open-carrying firearms significantly increase the probability of an assassination attempt (I am skeptical), it might not be worth the cost to add resources to increase presidential protection. Indeed, Frey finds that politicians are already overprotected. So the presence of citizens with guns may do nothing more than slightly reduce the extent of overprotection.

Since Zengerle found “offensive” McArdle's claim that few anti-gun types are willing to reveal their true estimate of the probability (i.e., to bet) that “one of these firearms is soon going to be discharged at someone,” I assume he'll find Frey's calculus appalling. But if we can apply cost-benefit analysis to taxpayer-funded end-of-life medical treatment, we can apply it just as well to taxpayer-funded bodyguards and bullet-proof limos.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure this attempt to be rational on the subject of privately-owned guns near the president is in vain. If we make a Venn diagram of the set of people for whom guns are bewitched totems of death and the set of people for whom the president is a majestic, semi-divine symbol of national identity, I think we'll see a fat overlap.

Living Wills

In my latest column for The Week, I try to encourage a mature discussion of the real issues lurking beneath the mythical death panel. One of these is the issue of Medicare-funded end-of-life counseling. I'm in favor of it. Why? First, because I'm in favor of end-of-life counseling and living wills generally. I think it's important to plan for death, and to make explicit to yourself and your loved ones what you do and do not want for yourself at the end of life while you're still in shape to do that. Second, because it helps individuals who depend on Medicare to retain control over life and death decisions — that is, it helps keep government from taking control of these decisions. Because I expect that in the absence of something like a living will, the default is to consume more end-of-life care than the patient would choose in a context of reflection and adequate information, I expect that the net cost of Medicare-funded counseling sessions would be negative. Because the financial and professional motives of doctors push in the direction of keeping patients alive as long as possible, I don't think there's reason to worry that during counseling sessions doctors will try to talk patients into choosing to pull the plug early. Between an increase in patient control over life and death decisions and potential savings to taxpayers, I find it hard to see what the problem is.

That said, there are interesting objections to living wills, whether or not they involved a Medicare-funded counseling session. A Facebook commenter said this:

Living wills are a mistake. People tend to underestimate how they will adapt to lower quality of life due to age and illness, and how they will cling to each last sweet second of life.

He's right that people tend underestimate the extent of adaptation to pain and reduced function. That's the sort of thing a doctor might bring up in a counseling session. But it's not clear how relevant it is. Living wills, as I understand them, primarily involve questions of what to do when a patient has lost consciousness, or is a state of heavily drugged consciousness, and is being kept alive by a respirator or other apparatus that is substituting for an organ that no longer functions. The big questions are about whether to withdraw active life-extending interventions or not, and under what conditions. If you're functioning at a level sufficient to revise your living will, you can do that. It's not like you're locked into your first draft. And it's not as if it is possible to set out in advance the conditions under which one would like to be legally euthanized. So I'm not sure I see the mistake.

The Trouble with Public Choice: Too Generous to Politicians

Matt Yglesias recently admitted in a blog post to increasing bafflement about “the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics.” Today Matt says some libertarians “responded to that post by deciding they should be condescending and give me a little less in Public Choice Economics 101. That, however, misunderstands what I’m trying to say about the subject.” Which is what?

The formal model of the self-interested legislator is very easy to understand. What I’m saying is hard to understand is the actual psychology of this kind of behavior. I think I now have a much better grasp than I once did of what’s going on inside the heads of people who have ideological beliefs I disagree with. But I find it very difficult to extend my powers of moral imagination to the kind of people who hold high political office in the United States.

I'm with Matt. I too find it hard to get inside the heads of politicians, and I don't find rational choice assumptions very illuminating in this regard. By insisting that politicians are motivated by considerations no different than businessmen or anybody else, public choice economists have helped slay the pernicious myth that politicians are generally warmly other-regarding public servants. But the economist's assumption of motivational uniformity fails to capture that politicians do in fact seem to be really odd people who don't seem to be primarily motivated by the same considerations that motivate most of us most of the time. The incentives of the political process create a kind of filter that selects for individuals extraordinarily fixated on power and status and extraordinarily motivated to keep it. If this is right (anyone know of personality studies of politicans?), then the problem with standard public choice is that it gives too much credit to politicians by assuming they're like everyone else and therefore it fails to capture just how exceptionally prone politicians are to narcissism, motivated cognition, self-deception, and brazen lying.

I find I almost always side with those defending empirically-informed motivational realism against a priorist rational choice/public choice types. (The dispute here between classic public choicers Mike Munger and Anthony de Jasay against empirically-informed political philosopher Jerry Gaus is illustrative. Jerry's right, I think.) So I agree with Matt that politicians are probably odd, and in a bad way. But then I wonder what Matt takes the general lesson of that to be. Maybe if I thought about it longer, I could imagine a story in which this doesn't tend to imply skepticism about the efficiency and justice of a system in which politicians are given a great deal of discretion to shape individual and public life, but I can't think of one right now. So I'm curious what Matt takes to be the broader implications of the idea that “we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power.”

The Way Singapore Does It Is Amazing, So For God's Sake Don't Let It Happen Here!

George Akerlof and Robert Shiller make a series of puzzling and inconsistent claims in their chapter on savings in Animal Spirits. In the section on “Why Conventional Theories of Savings Have It Wrong” they argue that Americans save too little. The evidence? Americans save more and are happy with it when enrolled in a Thaler-style Save More Tomorrow plan. And when you ask them, most Americans say they save less than they'd like to. I find their remarks about standard life-cycle savings models glib. But, sure.

But then A&S say that government old-age retirement pensions are a response to undersaving. Well, maybe. But doesn't everybody know social insurance crowds out self-insurance, at least to some degree? If we're confident that Social Security will deliver on its promises, we'll obviously feel less need to save than we would otherwise. (We may even choose to have fewer children — the oldest form of self-insurance.) Indeed, many Americans think (and are encouraged to think) that their payroll taxes — their “Federal Insurance Contributions” — are a form of retirement savings, though they're really just another tax legally unrelated to transfers received later in retirement. A&S decline to address the fact that Social Security depresses the savings rate, though they do begin their chapter praising Martin Feldstein!

Even better, they work themselves into a self-congratulatory lather about Bush's failed attempt to reform Social Security by introducing a system of mandatory retirement savings. Of course, they don't mention that's what the proposed policy was, conveniently sparing them the trouble of explaining away the fact that it would have significantly increased the national savings rate. They just call the policy “privatization” and move on.

Why did Bush's attempt to reform Social Security fail? A&S say most Americans opposed it because retirees depend pretty heavily on their Social Security transfer checks. Maybe so! But the fact that retired Americans do depend so heavily on Social Security would, again, tend to explain why retirement savings aren't higher. You can depend on Social Security! But this is what A&S choose to say: “People depend on [Social Security] because their own retirement savings are so scant.” I can't say they're wrong!

But wait, it gets better! In the next section, “Savings and the Wealth of Nations,” they jump right into singing Singapore's praises for having “adopted the strategy of saving their way out of poverty.” They go on to explain the Central Provident Fund in glowing terms. Now, the CPF is a system of mandatory savings including mandatory retirement savings. What is that a heckuva lot like? Why, the Bush administration's plan to “privatize” Social Security! Just one page after dumping on the idea, A&S now love it!

However, they conveniently manage to describe Singapore's mandatory savings program without mentioning that it finances the retirement and health-care system. Reading A&S, you might think Singapore just forces people to save money and that's the end of it, though they do hint that it's funding something. Of Singapore's unmentioned social insurance system financed by its mentioned system of mandatory personal savings accounts they say:

The system has not been “pay-as-you-go,” and the sums collected have really been invested. Largely because of the CPF, the gross national savings rate has been in the vicinity of 50% for decades.

Not only has this been just terrific for Singapore's savings rate and rate of economic growth, A&S claim its stunning example has totally transformed China!

[Lee Kuan Yew's] high-saving economy became a model for China, which has copied Singapore's savings achievement and have been achieving significant economic growth fore decades.

So you might think that it wouldn't have been a disaster had the U.S. followed Singapore's example and replaced its “pay-as-you-go” tax and transfer retirement pension system with a system of mandatory personal accounts actually invested in the market. But, no. They hide the dots so the reader can't connect them. They really do seem to go out of their way to prevent the reader from grasping that the Social Security reform proposal they deride was a mandatory savings program and that the mandatory savings program they praise finances retirement security.

Akerlof has a Nobel Prize. Shiller is a Nobel short-lister. So it's hard to pin this on ignorance or incompetence. What's going on!? Let's jump back a page to Akerlof's “personal footnote” about Social Security reform.

[Akerlof] was on a panel of economic advisers (a minor one) to the Kerry campaign in 2004. Up until the elections we had a conference call every two weeks. From the very first to the very last of these calls, Akerlof asserted that Kerry should affirm his support for maintaining Social Security in its current form. Toward the end, Austand Goolsbee (who is now a leading adviser to President Barack Obama) would joke, “And now we will hear from George, who will say that Kerry should demagogue the Social Security issue.”

LOL! George goes on to explain that he thinks Kerry lost because he didn't demagogue the Social Security issue like he said he should. And then two paragraphs later, we get to read about how awesome the Central Provident Fund is.

This bit of Animal Spirits gave me whiplash. It's incoherence is simply overwhelming if you happen to know a bit about pension systems and retirement savings. Maybe we're seeing an unresolved problem of dual authorship. I don't know. What I do know is that this section of the book really does convey the impression that some care was taken to omit very relevant details, and therefore to create a misleading picture — an impression only reinforced by Akerlof's joshing, self-approving anecdote about his reputation for promoting demogogeury on Social Security. As Akerlof and Shiller are both phenomenally accomplished scholars who I'm sure have well-deserved reputations for intellectual honesty, I expect they'll want to revise this section for the paperback edition of their book.

You Got Morals in My Economics!

Economics, qua social science, is not a normative field. But much of the drive to understand how social interaction works is to give advice about policy. However, giving advice implies a standard for determining what counts as good advice, some kind of value theory. This is inconvenient for economists, who want badly to make policy recommendations, but who tend not to be very sophisticated moral philosophers (though there are some notable exceptions). Bryan Caplan tries to find a way around the inconvenience:

In many cases, there is no need to state your moral premise, because (economics + almost any moral premise) will do.

Suppose legalizing the market in human organs would make sick people healthy and poor people rich.  What moral premise would imply “don't legalize”?  Sheer malevolence?  Blind adoration of the status quo?  While these are coherent moral premises, they're so rare that the cost of addressing them is a waste of time.

It seems that Bryan thinks most opposition to markets in organs is a function of either ignorance of the likely consequences or perverse and exotic moral premises. This makes me wonder if he has ever debated this issue with anyone? Lots of people understand the economics well enough but continue to believe that markets in organs ought to be illegal. Here's rough sketch of the standard argument.

Human beings have a certain dignity that is central to the value of human life. That dignity ought to be respected, preserved, and protected. Allowing the sale of human body parts diminishes the dignity of those involved in the transaction and erodes respect for the dignity of human beings generally. Therefore, markets in body parts ought to be legally prohibited.

Is this a good argument? No. I think it's lousy argument, even in its most sophisticated form. But the idea that the value and conditions of human dignity imply that some things shouldn't be bought and sold is not at all rare. Indeed, I think this is likely the dominant moral stance of most people in most places at most times in human history. If one grants the benefits of legalizing markets in organs, which I certainly do, then addressing this argument is not only not a waste of time, but is of fundamental importance in removing one of the main barriers to great improvements in human health and well-being.

Which is just to say, no, you can't get around defending your moral premises by claiming that once the facts are established, all moral premises worth taking seriously point in the same direction. It's just not true that there are “many cases” in which all paths converge like this. And when there is such a case, the convergence is often counterintuitive, and thus needs to be demonstrated, not just asserted. Policy analysis is at least as much applied moral philosophy as applied economics. Without some normative standard, economics has no application at all. Moreover, public deliberation about policy requires taking other people's moral beliefs seriously and you can't do that by ignoring them.

America Lost

I'm with Glenn Greenwald:

(1) The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle — all things that we have always condemend as “torture” and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies (“torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .”) — reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.

This is your government in action, Americans. This is some of what it does with your tax dollars. “It’s bullshit. It’s disgraceful. You wonder which side they’re on.” That's what Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said not of the men and women in the secret police responsible for these crimes, but of the Attorney General's move to investigate them. Amazing. That so many Americans are so ready to rally around the most vile, most obviously illegitimate arm of the American state is evidence for the proposition that patriotism is a tool for rendering a people ready to torture and kill at the state's behest, or to tolerate it. I am disgusted that people who pretend to care about liberty are not disgusted.

Rep. King said that we (who exactly? The American people, the CIA?) must “do whatever we have to do,” must pursue a “scorched earth policy” on behalf of the secret police and their unchecked discretion to torture those in its custody. Do we have to wait for the scorched earth before calling this thing for the terrorists?