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Daily Howler: Al Franken untangled that Medicare mess. Could Nozick have done so? John Rawls?
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LETTING WILT PLAY! Al Franken untangled that Medicare mess. Could Nozick have done so? John Rawls? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 14, 2008

READING THE TELL: Our favorite film is Hitchcock’s Notorious (along with Casablanca and My Brilliant Career). A telling scene occurs late in the film. We thought of that scene all day Thursday.

The setting: Ingrid Bergman, an American spy, is being slowly poisoned by her Nazi husband and his mommy. (The image of the controlling mother at the top of the stairs starts here, and is later transported to Psycho.) The poison is being administered to her in her daily coffee. One day, growing sicker and hazier, Bergman accidentally reaches for her husband’s cup of coffee. And everybody over-reacts, rushing to direct her to her own cup. Even through her growing haze, Bergman is able to read the tell. She suddenly realizes why she is sick. It comes to her: She’s being poisoned.

We thought of that jerk of reaction—that sudden group tell—when we scanned yesterday’s New York Times. Omigod! Saturday Night Live had dared present skits, in three straight shows, which seemed sympathetic to Hillary Clinton. (Two of these skits had even seemed to criticize your superlative press corps!) And with this came a jerk of reaction: Just like that, the Times took action, calling the program’s honchos onto the carpet in this report by Bill Carter. And not only that—the Los Angeles Times did a similar piece about the program’s troubling drift. Last night, Chris Matthews worried further, with SNL head writer Jim Downey as his guest.

We thought Matthews and the two papers offered an obvious tell. For more than a year, Candidate Clinton was gender-trashed in a fairly blatant fashion. But TV writers—people like Carter—showed no reaction whatsoever. No surprise there! In 1999, the nation’s TV and political writers didn’t even react when two major programs gave Gennifer Flowers half-hour and hour-long segments to accuse the first lady of multiple murders! But good lord! Let someone even seem to defend her, and hands quickly reach to direct us rubes to the appropriate cup. You can trash this person in the crudest ways and no one will so much as say boo. But if you even seem to defend her, the press corps will quickly take notice.

[For the record, Bob Herbert managed to hear the who first, making snide references to SNL’s “giddy fun”at the start and the end of this March 4 column. This was after just two weeks. You will not challenge your press corps!]

And by the way, just so we all understand, this is part of what Geraldine Ferraro was talking about in Jim Farber’s Daily Breeze profile. You know? In the parts of Farber’s profile which everyone knew to ignore? Why was Ferraro feeling “emotional” about the current campaign? She explained: "For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It's been a very sexist media.”

Other statements by Ferraro were, at least, clumsily worded. By contrast, these statements were perfectly accurate—and by some peculiar act of agreement, they were completely ignored.

For ourselves, we wouldn’t say that any of this was necessarily worth discussing; Ferraro was a minor player speaking to a very minor newspaper. But like that Ingrid Bergman character, we can sometimes read a tell—and yesterday, the tell was quite obvious. It’s not unlike what Ferraro may have been saying: Our pundit culture is very careful about issues of race (good). But then, it seems to feel quite free to gender-trash certain women. Indeed, watchdogs don’t even seem to see such conduct when it occurs.

Many boys in the pseudo-liberal world tolerated this for more than a year. This week, these fellows have been crying real tears about Ferraro’s poorly-worded statements. They also knew which of her statements to skip right past as they composed their high-minded briefs. Fellows like this have always been with us. On Thursday, they gave us a tell.

By the way: What makes Notorious such a great film? First, it’s a superb suspense thriller—but then we get to its larger drama. Throughout the film, Hitchcock asks a question: Why do (some) men despise women?

It’s instructive to see how few critics, male or female, even notice this part of the film. For those who won’t spot it, even with prompting, it’s the love/hatin’ Cary Grant character to whom we mainly refer.

CORRECTION: A reader refreshes us. It's a colleague of Bergman's husband who reaches for Bergman's (poisoned) cup, thereby producing the startle reaction which lets Bergman grasp the truth.

THIS TOO IS YOUR BRAIN ON CELEBRITY: We managed to draw some rueful laughs from Gail Collins’ latest column. It finally seems to dawn on Collins—she and her tribe-mates just aren’t very good when it comes to assessing character:

COLLINS (3/13/08): Confession: I thought electing Eliot Spitzer governor of New York was a really good idea. Now it’s clear to me why some people refuse to register to vote. You never know.

Sure, you think you’re up on the issues. And you watch for character flaws—we’ve been watching Hillary Clinton’s for so long we could give them pet names. But we don’t really know. What if she has a secret life as a French undercover agent or a space alien?

The Spitzer scandal has completely undermined my confidence as a voter.


How can you guarantee that a candidate isn’t going to go all weird on you 14 months into the job?

In that second paragraph, Collins enjoys a favorite pastime—tossing unflattering images at people she may not find appealing. In the meantime, she cops to an obvious point: People like her haven’t been very good at assessing these peoples’ character. What the heck! Let’s quote her again:

COLLINS: The state comptroller, by the way, is now an appointee, since the one the voters elected, Alan Hevesi, turned out to have big-time ethics problems. I thought Hevesi was a great comptroller, too.

There’s nothing wrong with getting fooled in such matters. But big major pundits rarely take the clue from such incidents. No matter how many times they judge wrong, they start judging—inanely—again.

How bad is their judgment of “character?” We would have thought that Al Gore cinched it. People like Collins spent two years ridiculing Gore for his clownish ways—and promising every rube they could reach that Gore was the world’s biggest fake/phony/liar. Eight years later, he holds the Nobel Peace Prize—and Collins still seems surprised this week to learn that her judgment is bad.

A word comes to mind here: ineducable. But then, as have noted before ,this is your brain on celebrity.

Let’s face it! Some people are born to cluck their judgments—and to stick their big long noses into everyone else’s business. Midway through, Collins informs all future wronged wives that they mustn’t appear at their husbands’ press conferences. Meanwhile, shorter Gene Robinson: No one knows the lives of women quite like Jack Cafferty does!

“No one deserves the...public humiliation,” the scribe sadly says—as he extends the process.

STEPFORDIZATION NEARING COMPLETION: Then there’s Josh, saying this (without explanation) about ABC’s report on Jeremiah Wright. The Stepfordization continues:

MARSHALL (3/13/08): If Obama's the nominee, we will see no end of this kind of stuff. And there's probably some small benefit of getting a preview. But the simple fact is that we wouldn't be seeing this stuff now if it weren't for the fact that this is the kind of campaign Hillary Clinton's campaign has decided to wage—often directly and at other times indirectly by not reining it in in her supporters when it crops up on its own. Wright is news today because Ferraro's been news yesterday.

For starters, this is largely nonsense. It was always fairly obvious that Wright would become some sort of “issue” at some point—and it’s far from clear that this takes us outside normal standards for reporting on presidential candidates. This was part of what we cited when we said Obama’s downside (potentially major) was the possibility that he could get “Dukakised.” (Clinton’s downside, clearly major: The fact that the press corps loathes her.) That said, on what basis does Josh assert that ABC’s report had something to do with “the kind of campaign” Clinton has run? The most troubling part of Josh’s report is the fact that he doesn’t feel he has to bother trying to tell you. You’re being treated like total rubes when a writer descends to this point.

“Wright is news today because Ferraro's been news yesterday?” Josh has been almost thoroughly Stepfordized. Indeed , you know the process is nearing completion when a site can’t wait to roll its eyes at the specter of yet two more debates! In Pennsylvania and North Carolina, many voters will want to see those debates. But at the Times, Gail Collins will be sooo bored—and so will TPM. Awful.

But remember: When a writer doesn’t even pretend to support the things he says, Stepfordization is almost complete. (You do get Lincoln quoting Matthew.)

Josh has things he wants you to think. While you’re at it, why not visit Paypal?

Special feature: Philosopher Fridays!

READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Today, we add to previous “Philosopher Fridays.” These three installments are especially relevant:

A brush with greatness: We miserable freshmen groused and complained—about a future giant. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/08.

About that accessible style: Everyone praised his “accessible style.” Why in the world did they do that? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/08.

Say hello to my little (seven-foot) friend: A famous philosopher thought about Wilt—and provoked an incomparable question. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/08.

Today, we start to examine the text of a famous argument:

LETTING WILT PLAY: Long story short: Bob Nozick’s “famous Wilt Chamberlain argument” was an attempt to argue against the type of government system he described as “distributive justice.” The famous argument appears in Nozick’s first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia—the book which made the young porfessor a major star. In his 1975 review of the book, Peter Singer described the state of play when Nozick published:

“Political philosophers have tended to assume without argument that justice demands an extensive redistribution of wealth in the direction of equality,” Singer wrote, “and that it is a legitimate function of the state to bring about this redistribution by coercive means like progressive taxation.” It was these attempts to redistribute income that Nozick argued against in his book. As a general matter, Singer disagreed with Nozick’s political outlook—but he thought the young, not-nutty professor had argued his case quite brilliantly. In his review, Singer fashioned a question: Should philosophers continue to “assume without argument that justice demands an extensive redistribution of wealth in the direction of equality?” His reply: “These assumptions may be correct, but after Anarchy, State, and Utopia they will need to be defended and argued for instead of being taken for granted.”

According to Singer, Nozick had made a surprisingly good case against “government policies designed to redistribute wealth” (Singer’s language). In the process, Nozick employed “an ingenious illustration” to “buttress his entitlement theory” (the theory that a person is “entitled” to his wealth, as long as he attained it by legitimate means). That illustration involved Wilt Chamberlain, greatest NBA star of the age; we offered Singer’s summary of this presentation last week. And sure enough! Over time, Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument became the best-known part of his book. Just google “Nozick AND Wilt Chamberlain” and you can enjoy weekends of light summer reading. Why, we’ve even found a reference or three to Nozick’s “Wilt Chamberlain parable.”

In real time, Singer praised Nozick’s “illustration”—and over the years, it did become famous. But please remember the question we’re asking: Today, the U.S. struggles under the burden of a deeply inane political discourse. In the mid-1990s, to cite one example, a two-year discussion dragged on without end, as politicians and journalists tried to resolve an “angels on the head of a pin” level question. That question: Was Newt Gingrich’s new Republican Congress proposing cuts in the Medicare program? Or were they simply proposing that we reduce the rate at which the program would grow? A “logician” with even the most modest skills could have settled this point in moments. (Al Franken did so, with perfect ease, in Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.) But Washington’s hapless political press corps “debated” this matter for two solid years, from the summer of 1994 right through the 1996 election. In the process, they turned Bill Clinton into a liar—though Clinton was being much more direct about the matter than Gingrich was. A few years later, Clinton’s reputation for lying was seamlessly transferred to Gore.
In short, a foolish discussion dragged on for two years—with deeply pernicious results.

And readers, here’s where you come in! If you’re inclined to believe the people who talk about Nozick’s “accessible style,” you may believe that our universities are spilling with “logicians” and “thinkers” (some of them being “political philosophers”). You’ve heard about them throughout your life—told about them by the same people who speak about Nozick’s accessible style. But here’s our question: If these intellectual giants exist, why did none of them ever come forward to straighten out that Medicare mess? Indeed, if Nozick and Rawls were such potent thinkers, why didn’t they descend from Olympus to straighten this two-year conundrum?

We know, we know—such extra-terrestrials wander the earth with their noble old heads in the clouds! But surely, at some point in this period, Nozick walked past a TV set when Crossfire’s nightly “discussion” was on. At some point, he or Rawls must have shaken his head at the foolishness clogging our public discourse. And surely, other “logicians” could have seen how tangled this silly debate had become. Surely, our universities were full of “thinkers” who could have straightened it out in a minute.

Nozick, or other “philosophers” like him, could have straightened this out in a snap! That’s the kind of thing you’ll believe—if you believe the kinds of people who boast about Nozick’s “accessible style.” But since we’ve seen that the gentleman’s style plainly wasn’t all that “accessible,” another thought may enter the head: Maybe Nozick (and others like him) weren’t such great “logicians” either! Maybe brilliant “thinkers” like Nozick weren’t equipped to solve such disputes.

Good God! Maybe our greatest logicians and thinkers have limited logical skills!

We know, we know—it’s hard to believe; it contradicts everything we tuition-paying rubes have been told through the annals of time. But we’ve also been told about Nozick’s accessible style—and you saw where that odd claim ended up. If we can’t believe what they said about style, why put our faith in the rest of it?

Wilt could play—but could Nozick coach? And if not, why is he regarded so highly? We know, we know—true-believing younger minds will recoil at such ridiculous questions. So please forgive our deep transgression as we continue to ask them.

TRUTH TO TELL, NOZICK’S FAMOUS CHAMBERLAIN argument is largely contained in one long paragraph, spanning three pages of his non-chatty book. Remember: Nozick himself proposed what he called the “entitlement theory” (the “entitlement conception of justice”), in which a person is “entitled” to his “holdings” if they were attained by legitimate means. (To simplify: If he didn’t steal them.) His Chamberlain chunk was designed to challenge theories of “distributive justice,” in which the government would redistribute income according to some nobler theory. Shortly before bringing Chamberlain onto the floor, Nozick listed various theories of “distributive justice’” in them, a society’s holdings could be distributed according to various schemes. And as the Chamberlain argument starts, he imagines something which seems rather simple. Instead of gulping the argument whole, let’s start out a bit more simply. Try to avoid being swept away by the highly accessible style:

NOZICK (pages 160-161): It is not clear how those holding alternative conceptions of distributive justice can reject the entitlement conception of justice in holdings. For suppose a distribution favored by one of these non-entitlement conceptions is realized. Let us suppose it is your favorite one and let us call this distribution D1; perhaps everyone has an equal share, perhaps shares vary in accordance with some dimension you treasure. Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction...

Thus begins the Wilt Chamberlain argument, most famous in the land.

Nozick begins by imagining something: We’ve enacted some type of “distributive justice.” He further imagines that this distribution is “your favorite one”—“perhaps everyone has an equal share,” he says, “perhaps shares vary in accordance with some dimension you treasure.” And then, at this point, he brings Chamberlain out, and imagines him being in major demand. After only one more page, Nozick’s “ingenious illustration” would be (largely) finished, and Singer would be saying this: “A reader who is sympathetic to government policies designed to redistribute wealth and who has taken for granted the justice of such policies will be surprised at the strength of the arguments Nozick brings against this view.”

To this day, we don’t know why Singer said that. (Indeed, we think the size of the gentleman’s error helps illustrate a key point of our own.) But before we meet again next week and survey the Chamberlain chunk as a whole, let’s take note of one small point which drives the start of this argument:

Nozick imagines that D1, this imagined distribution of holdings, is “your favorite one.” “Perhaps everyone has an equal share, perhaps shares vary in accordance with some dimension you treasure.” But ask yourself this: Do you know anyone—anyone at all—who actually favors a government policy in which everyone is given equal “holdings?” For that matter, do you know anyone who favors a policy in which the government imposes some rigid pattern on the distribution of wealth—any such rigid pattern at all? In the early 1970s, when this book was written, there were, it is true, a few more people who may have favored such government action; in his books and in his interviews, Nozick’s occasional references to “hippies” and “radicals” suggests that this highly rational man may have found this element disconcerting. (Solidarity! We felt the same way.) But even in 1974, very few people actually favored the types of policies Nozick described—and no one favors such policies now, although this book is still said to be famous. In short, Nozick starts by getting “you” to accept an assumption, an assumption you almost surely don’t hold. Singer failed to note the mischief which can ensue when this occurs early on in an argument. We certainly don’t think that Nozick was trying to trick his readers as his argument started. Despite that, we’ll guess that some have been tricked just a tad, in a way we will mention next week.

In our view, this famous argument is groaningly weak, starting with this small sleight of hand. Our view? When our brightest thinkers produce such work; when other such thinkers sing its praises; it’s hardly surprising if no one descends from alleged Olympus to help us untangle our pundit corps’ messes. As it turned out, Al Franken had the technical skill to unravel that two-year dispute. But did Bob Nozick? Did John Rawls? We’ve turned off the 24-second clock. Don’t be so quick to answer.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Long ago, we prepared three reports on the Medicare mess—short, medium and long. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99. Al Franken wins glory in “The Speaker’s new language,” the longest of these expositions.

A CHANCE TO READ AHEAD: Below, we offer the fuller argument, as it appeared in Nozick’s book. For the sake of brevity, we’ve removed two short, parenthetical statements, incomparably marking our work with ellipses. And we’ve briefly clipped the end of the paragraph. Nothing of moment has been changed:

NOZICK (pages 160-162): It is not clear how those holding alternative conceptions of distributive justice can reject the entitlement conception of justice in holdings. For suppose a distribution favored by one of these non-entitlement conceptions is realized. Let us suppose it is your favorite one and let us call this distribution D1; perhaps everyone has an equal share, perhaps shares vary in accordance with some dimension you treasure. Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction....He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game, twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him....The season starts, and people cheerfully attend his team’s games; they buy his tickets, each time dropping a separate twenty-five cents of their admission price into a special box with Chamberlain’s name on it. They are excited about seeing him play; it is worth the total admission price to them. Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to this income? Is this new distribution D2 unjust? If so, why? There is no question about whether each of the people was entitled the control they held over the resources they held in D1; because that was the distribution (your favorite) that (for the purposes of argument) we assumed was acceptable. Each of these persons chose to give twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain. They could have spent it on going to the movies, or on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or of Monthly Review. But they all, at least one million of them, converged on giving it to Wilt Chamberlain in exchange for watching him play basketball. If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to do something with?), isn’t D2 also just? If the people were entitled to dispose of the resources to which they were entitled (under D1), didn’t this include their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with, Wilt Chamberlain? Can anyone else complain on grounds of justice? Each other person already has his legitimate share of D1. Under D1, there is nothing that anyone has that anyone else has a claim of justice against. After someone transfers something to Wilt Chamberlain, third parties still have their legitimate shares; their shares are not changed. By what process could such a transfer among two persons give rise to a legitimate claims of distributive justice on a portion of what was transferred by a third part who had no claim of justice on any holding of the others before the transfer?...

For the most part, that’s the famous Wilt Chamberlain argument, praised as an “ingenious illustration” and then discussed through the annals of time. (Admittedly, by handfuls of people.) According to Singer, “A reader who is sympathetic to government policies designed to redistribute wealth and who has taken for granted the justice of such policies will be surprised at the strength of the arguments Nozick brings against this view.”

For ourselves, we’ll have to admit it: We don’t find this illustration especially ingenious! In fact, we have a quite different reaction from Singer, one we’ll discuss next week. As we do, we’ll return to our basic question: Al Franken unraveled that Medicare mess. Could Nozick have done so? John Rawls?