Storming the Hospice

by Kieran Healy on March 24, 2005

Bloggers with more patience than me have been dealing with the tragic story of Terri Schiavo. “Lindsay Beyerstein”: has been “especially good”: It’s clear that the Republican position on Schiavo is sheer grandstanding and hypocritical to boot. There’s plenty of evidence for this, what with President Bush’s signature on the “Texas Futile Care Law”: and Bill Frist’s “statements about Christopher Reeve”: and his support for “harvesting organs from anencephalic children”: And never mind the broader policy context where the fiscal means whereby people might support patients in persistent vegetative states — via Medicare and bankruptcy protection — are being hacked away. Now, via “DC Media Girl”:, we have the icing on the cake. Some “Fox News Pundit”:,2933,151442,00.html is thinking that Jeb Bush should just authorize a SWAT team to storm the hospice and get Terri Schiavo out:

bq. Just to burnish my reputation as a bomb thrower, I think Jeb Bush should give serious thought to storming the Bastille. By that I mean he should think about telling his cops to go over to Terri Schiavo’s (search) hospice, go inside, put her on a gurney and load her into an ambulance. They could take her to a hospital, revive her, and reattach her feeding tube. … So Jeb, call out the troops, storm the Bastille and tell ’em I sent you.

It’s our old friend, “poetic justice as fairness”: Two words, buddy: “Elian Gonzalez”:

Violent Societies

by Kieran Healy on March 24, 2005

While thinking about the “deterrent effect of the death penalty”: I wondered about cross-national variation in rates of violent death. Comparative data on homicide rates undoubtedly exist, but I don’t have them to hand. I do have OECD data on rates of death due to assault, though, so here’s a nice picture of this trend for eighteen capitalist democracies from 1960 to 2002.

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China, Japan, Taiwan

by Chris Bertram on March 24, 2005

I’m woefully ignorant about the geopolitics of Asia, so I’m not going to offer any opinions of my own here. Harry at “Harry’s Place has been linking”: to “a piece in the Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash”:,7369,1444660,00.html which expresses relief at the EU’s decision to postpone the lifting of the arms embargo on China. In Garton Ash’s piece, China is cast as the bad guy. A different view is put in “a fascinating article by Chalmers Johnson”: which sees American concern about democracy as being merely window-dressing for a policy which is basically about preventing the emergence of geopolitical rivals. Johnson also warns about US encouragement for the remilitarization of Japan as a counterweight to China.

Transparency for thee and not for me

by Henry Farrell on March 24, 2005

In yesterday’s debate on the proposed program to send CIA analysts back to campus, Martin Kramer writes:

If there’s a danger here, it’s the possibility of faculty intimidation of students. The storm at Columbia is a precedent, and if it’s known who’s made a prior commitment to intelligence work, there’s a real possibility that radical professors might target students. I wouldn’t accept anyone’s assurance that this won’t happen. So- called “transparency” sets up students for a radical witch-hunt, which will seek to gut the program by “outing” its participants. (I don’t even think the NSEP scholars should be named. I’ve seen the list, with the foreign countries where they have studied. It’s beyond me why an NSEP student who’s gone to study Arabic in Syria — a police state — should be openly named as a prospective employee of a national security agency.)

I’ll grant him the risk of NSEP students being exposed when they go to study abroad, but Kramer’s scorn for “so-called transparency,” and for exercises in “outing,” which set people up for a “witch-hunt,” seems rather hard to reconcile with his support for Campus Watch and for the David Project at Columbia. Campus Watch not only seeks to highlight possible discrimination against students, but also to highlight statements (or, very often what students claim are statements) made by Middle East studies professors, which are anti-Israel, anti-US, which make excuses for autocracies in the Arab world, etc etc. The David Project makes similar accusations against professors in Columbia’s MEALAC program – but doesn’t seem, according to the accounts I’ve read, to have much in the way of hard evidence to back them up. I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch at all to describe both of these endeavours as “outing,” or to point to the likelihood that they will indeed lead to radical witch hunts (looking to aggrieved students for ‘evidence’ of bias in the classroom is liable to produce distortions and downright falsehoods that can do irreparable damage to innocent professors’ reputations). The “storm in Columbia” is indeed a precedent – but not necessarily in the sense that Kramer intends. As noted yesterday, I’ve more respect for Kramer than for some of the others in his camp – but if, as he seems to be suggesting, he’s actively opposed to ‘so-called transparency,’ witch hunts and outing, he should extend the lesson to those forms of transparency and outing that he supports, as well as those that he dislikes.

Teething Again

by Kieran Healy on March 24, 2005

Apologies for yet another meta post. How many sets of teeth can one site have, anyway? I’d really appreciate some help, though.

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Narcisse in the US

by Chris Bertram on March 24, 2005

As CT’s resident Rousseauiste, I’d like to pass on the news to residents of New York City (and parts thereabouts) that the Johnson Theater will be staging the “first ever US production of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s play Narcisse”: from 7-10 April:

bq. an utterly contemporary drama that deals with the problem of narcissism and sexual ambiguity. The play is about a man who falls in love with an image of himself dressed as a woman and explores contemporary issues of desire, self-obsession and the difficulty of the relation between the sexes.


Deterrence and the Death Penalty

by Kieran Healy on March 24, 2005

Eugene Volokh “quotes extensively”: from a new paper by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule that presents an “argument for the death penalty”: It begins by reviewing recent studies that find the death penalty has a deterrent effect on potential murderers. In particular:

bq. Disaggregating the data on a state by state basis, Joanna Shepherd finds that the nation-wide deterrent effect of capital punishment is entirely driven by only six states … [The states] showing a deterrent effect are executing more people than states that do not. In fact the data show a “threshold effect”: deterrence is found in states that had at least nine executions between 1977 and 1996. In states below that threshold, no deterrence can be found. This finding is intuitively plausible. Unless executions reach a certain level, murderers may act as if the death is so improbable as not to be worthy of concern. Her main lesson is that once the level of executions reaches a certain level, the deterrent effect of capital punishment is substantial.

This is an elegant idea, but trouble with it is that only few states execute anyone in a given year. Most execute no-one. A tiny few — notably Texas — kill a lot of people in some years. As a result, evidence for a threshold deterrent effect depends on a very small number of observations. In a “nice analysis”: of state-level data from 1977 to 1997, “Richard Berk”: shows that just eleven state-year observations out of a thousand drive the deterrent effect. It’s possible to mess around with the specification a bit to get a less strongly skewed measure (by standardizing the number of executions by the number of death sentences, say) or making the data more fine-grained so that you have more observations (using county-quarters as a unit, for instance), but in the end its hard to escape the worry that about 1 percent of the observations are behind the results.

We’re probably witnessing the birth of a dubious stylized fact about deterrence and the death penalty. I don’t doubt that the Sunstein and Vermeule paper raises a bunch of interesting questions, but the empirical results they rely on just don’t seem that robust. This is a bit ironic given their argument that “The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs involved in capital punishment may depend on cognitive processes that fail to treat ‘statistical lives’ with the seriousness that they deserve.” One of these processes is the tendency to latch on to a cool finding a bit too quickly. Negative results (like the ones reported in Berk’s paper) are just not as interesting, unfortunately.