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Self in Society Roundup 45

Catholic dogma, illiberalism, wokeness, copyright, academic fraud, mental illness, Amber Brown, and more.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
January 16, 2024

Anti-Gay Catholics: WaPo: "Pope Francis is facing some of the most vociferous objection to papal authority in decades, in language that might have stunned past popes." Why? He said priests can "bless same-sex couples."

Pope Condemns Surrogacy: WaPo: "Pope Francis called Monday for a global ban on surrogate motherhood, equating it with child trafficking." Francis's position is terrible. Many couples (notably including many gay couples) simply cannot have children without a surrogate. Francis particularly condemned "exploitation of situations of the mother's material needs," ignoring the facts that a) some surrogate mothers donate their efforts (does he want to ban that too?) and b) many women would not be surrogates unless they were compensated, so many couples who rely on surrogacy would be denied a child. And Catholic doctrine is supposedly "pro-life?"

Palmer on the Anti-Liberal Right: Aaron Ross Powell sets up his conversation with Tom Palmer about today's "right": "Classical liberal rhetoric has been replaced with something much uglier and more reactionary, keen to carve the world into us and them, and celebrate the use and abuse of power." Palmer talks about the deep nihilism of fascist movements and of today's right (or alt-right, whatever you want to call it). A funny aside: "As [Ludwig von] Mises put it very neatly, Karl Marx had the ability to take a simple idea and express it in a mere 400 pages."

Boaz on Liberalism: David Boaz, another of my very favorite libertarians, has out an essay promoting liberalism. He concludes: "Committed classical liberals are tempted to be too depressed. We read the morning papers, or watch the cable shows, and we think the world is indeed on 'the road to serfdom.' But we should reject a counsel of despair. We've been fighting ignorance, superstition, privilege, and power for many centuries. Our classical liberal forebears have won great victories. The fight is not over, but liberalism remains the only workable operating system for a world of peace, growth, and progress."

Pining for Caesar: Radley Balko (another of the best libertarians) reminds us, among many other things, that Ohio Senator J. D. Vance warned "we are in a late republican period," like late Rome, and therefore we need a strong-man leader like Trump. Isn't that the opposite of the lesson that late-Rome offers? Balko recounts the many ways that Trump has promised to be an authoritarian.

Sense on Wokeness: Michael Huemer plausibly argues that "wokists" defended former Harvard president Claudine Gay. Huemer observes, "She is a mediocre scholar with a total of 11 published papers and no books, over a 23-year career." He adds, "I looked at the examples [of alleged plagiarism]. Some of them are minor, borderline cases. But at least some of them are just clear cases. . . . When students do this, I give them an F in the course and report them to the Office of Student Conduct." I count Huemer's remarks as a reasonable critique of "wokism."

Nonsense on Wokeness: Then there's Bryan Caplan's take on Substack booting a few of the Nazis from the platform. He worries that doing so invites the "woke" mob to keep "moving the goalposts." I do take somewhat seriously the "slippery slope" argument. After all, YouTube removed, completely unjustifiably, a video interview of mine with historian Robert Alan Goldberg, about his book on American conspiracy mongering. So content moderation can get completely out of control. Still, it's possible to remove obvious bad actors without sliding down the slippery slope. Compare: A company need not refrain from firing someone who continuously refers to his Black coworkers as the "n-word," out of fear that the company will end up firing the kid who "sings" along to a rap song that happens to include the "n-word." A newspaper need not refrain from hiring a neo-Nazi columnists out of fear that it will discourage its writers from having uncomfortable conversations about "race" and ethnicity. Yes, context often is hard. But that doesn't mean that anything has to go at a private site. Elsewhere Caplan calls Richard Hanania "possibly the world's greatest living essayist." If your alternative to "wokeness" is Hanania, that indicates a problem. It's interesting where Caplan fears a slippery slope and where he does not.

Boring Politics, Vibrant Lives: Noah Smith has out a nice essay to the effect that it's a good thing when people don't have to suffer the "adversity" of disease and war. Those who think life is boring or empty absent such "adversity" just aren't trying hard enough to live interesting lives. Even in utopia we'd have plenty of challenges to face to build character or whatever people think is important. Starting a business is challenging. So is writing a book or earning a degree or meeting an important health goal. Life is inherently challenging; we don't need to pine for such "challenges" as watching our kids get blown to bits in a war or ravished by some disease.

Copyright and Right to Repair: I have argued that there is no "right to repair" a product on top of the right of contract, and certainly law should not require manufacturers to proactively provide third parties with parts or documentation. But Luke Hogg discusses another side of this issue: "Companies such as John Deere have vertically integrated the entire ecosystem for equipment, requiring customers to purchase repair services exclusively from dealers and using software to prevent independent repairs." Hackers can get around those software restrictions, but that's a "violation of federal copyright law." Offhand here's what I'd say: John Deere has a right to sell its products how it wants, including with restrictive software; but government should not punish people for altering their products or for helping others to do so. But if John Deere deems any such alteration a warrantee voidance, that's understandable.

Micky Mouse Copyright Law: So Mickey Mouse lost its copyright protection. To reiterate my position: Copyright should start out with a reasonable time limit, expiring, say, at the creator's death unless the creator explicitly passes along the copyright to another party (such as an heir). Then the holder of the copyright should be able to extend it indefinitely, say, in ten-year intervals. Why? Obviously, some creative works retain value for a very long period of time, and, what's more, the copyright holder has an incentive to make the creation more valuable. If no one is actively working with some creative property, then it makes sense for the creation to enter the public domain. And of course creators and copyright holders can put creations into the public domain whenever they wish. But I think arbitrary limits of copyrights are wrong.

Cowen's Life and Thought: Tyler Cowen talks a lot about his early life in a podcast episode with Brink Lindsey. A detail: He learned to read starting at around age two by observing his grandmother teach his sister to read. Another: Cowen's father and grandmother were atheists. Cowen said, "I don't believe in a deity, but I'm at the margin pro-religion." (I take it he's referring to religious practices and traditions.) He said religion is not for him personally as it's too boring. Lindsey asks Cowen what he thinks about a variety of under-development energy sources, among other topics. As Cowen would say, self-recommending.

Cowen on Risks to Peace: This take on the limits of deterrence is depressing: "The Israeli military is much stronger than Hamas, for example, and is currently proving that on the ground. Yet that did not stop Hamas from proceeding with a violent incursion into Israel. In Ukraine, substantial support from the US and other NATO nations has not stopped Russia from pursuing a war, even with very heavy losses in terms of its military power and international reputation. Russian President Vladimir Putin simply wants Ukraine, and believes some parts of it rightfully belong to Russia." The Houthis are a problem, Cowen notes, and a potential China-Taiwan conflict looms.

Alleged Academic Fraud: Freakonomics has an episode (via Cowen). It starts off summarizing complaints against Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely. To me as an outsider, this seems at base like a story of people behaving badly because they're often rewarded for doing so. An obvious concern is that research fraud corrodes public trust in academic institutions. But the problem is worse than that; research fraud can actively feed public distrust, as with the BS "research" allegedly linking vaccines to autism (mentioned in the episode). But this is also a happy story about the self-correcting tendencies of science and about the potential to reform institutions to reward good behavior, as by changing journal rules regarding data sharing and the like. Here's a line about some researchers who wrote about problems with data manipulation: "They essentially manipulated and cherry-picked their data [transparently to make a point!] to produce the absurd finding they wanted—that listening to 'When I'm Sixty-Four' does lower your age, by a full year-and-a-half, it turns out. They published their article. . . ."

NIMBY UK and Ireland: Megan Specia: "Soaring rents have left many struggling to afford homes in Dublin and have created a generational divide. Two-thirds of younger adults in the city live with their parents." FT: "Politicians agree that shaking up the planning system is vital to the British economy, but Nimby-ism is stubbornly resilient."

Plastic: FT: "Petrochemical glut makes new plastic cheaper than recycled." There's a big problem with plastics in the oceans, but that problem is almost entirely caused by a few poor countries with horrible trash management. There's not much problem with plastics in quality landfills. Nevertheless, I still dream about the possibility of high-quality, standardized tough-plastic or glass (maybe metal?) containers than can be cleaned and reused. But that involves a lot of transport and cleaning costs.

Immigrants: NPR: "'There are millions of people who remain invisible to us,' says Muhammad Zaman in his new book We Wait for a Miracle. The miracle he is referring to is access to health care. He's writing about various kinds of displaced people: refugees—people who cross international borders; the internally displaced, who leave their homes but remain in the country; and the stateless, who lack proof of citizenship or national ID cards." This is a twin problem of anti-immigration laws, which create legally second-class (or under-class) people, and (largely) socialized medicine, which is impossible to navigate without the "proper" government paperwork. If we had free-market medicine, most services would tend to be much cheaper and cash-based.

Gray on Smartphones: Peter Gray does not think that smartphones caused "declining teen mental health." Excerpt: One "study [see details] used data from the Gallup World Poll (GWP) that assessed subjective wellbeing for citizens of 168 countries, aged 15 or older, and data from the International Telecommunications Network on Internet growth within each country, over the years from 2005 to 2022. The results, overall, revealed no general decline in life satisfaction and no correlation, over time or within any given year, between the measure of life satisfaction and Internet use. This lack of relationship held for both males and females and for teens of both sexes as well as adults." Here's the problem: The claim is not that general phone or internet use is responsible for declining mental health; the claim is that particular types of social media are damaging to some individuals. At a common-sense level, it's very plausible that teens obsessing over Tik-Tok beauty videos or the like, as opposed to engaging in healthy personal interactions, is not going to be good for their mental health. Jon Haidt and Zach Rausch review the evidence that "social media is a major cause of the mental illness epidemic."

The Stories We Tell: Ray Girn recounts an incident in a school in which one student commented negatively about another student's glasses. Was this just an innocuous off-the-cuff remark or bullying? The parent of the student with glasses mentally filled in details to make the situation seem extremely troubling, probably far more troubling than it actually was. We do well to remember that people can put a positive or negative spin on all sorts of things, and often it's hard to judge the underlying facts. On the other hand, many people also try hard to justify the unjustifiable or to condemn the innocent. Intellectual honesty means both withholding judgment when we don't know all the relevant facts and not withholding judgment when the facts are clear and a judgment is important.

Stand By Me: I rewatched the 1986 Rob Reiner film, set in the '50s. I hadn't realized it was based on a Stephen King story. This film definitely feels like a page from the past, with twelve-year-olds taking off through the woods by themselves, swearing, smoking cigarettes, and shooting guns. Quite different from the (stereo?)typical iPhone child of today! Not that the olden days were idyllic! The story: four friends journey to find the dead body of a schoolmate. The body had been spotted by one of the boy's brothers, who hadn't reported the body for fear of getting in trouble with the police for unrelated crimes. I also had forgotten that a young Kiefer Sutherland and John Cusack appear in the film, in addition to Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the adult version of one of the boys.

Amber Brown TV: Because I have a child, I also watched the Apple TV show Amber Brown, excellent although cancelled after its first ten-episode season. I love the thoughtful and benevolent characters. The stories revolve around Amber navigating her parents' divorce, her mom's new boyfriend, school troubles, and feelings of rebellion. Near the end the series also handles illness and death, with a fairly light touch. Carsyn Rose as Amber knocks it out of the park. I'm mad at Apple for cancelling the show.

Monster High: The movie is quite good for a TV movie for kids. It's about a half-human girl and her misfit friends struggling to fit in to their monster high school. It's also a musical!

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