American Law Professor Wants to Keep the Death Penalty

The perennial question from Europeans: Why does a 'civilized' nation like the USA hang on to a barbaric punishment like the death penalty? If I am in the mood, I reel off my 5-pronged answer (sometimes I miss a prong or add a few, depending on level of drunkenness).

One of those prongs is that in Europe, the entire law professoriate, and the entire educated class, is uniformly against capital punishment, with trivial exceptions. They act as elite opinion gatekeepers, making sure no pro-capital punishment arguments are ever aired in the mainstream media. Even Germany's leading tabloid, Bild, has always been against capital punishment.

Not so in the USA. Staying with the New York Times, here's an op-ed from William Baude, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago. He's commenting on a recent court decision, Glossip v. Gross, in which liberal Justices Breyer and Ginsburg advocated abolishing the death penalty in the USA: 

Next let’s turn to Justice Breyer, who argues that it is “highly likely” that the death penalty as a whole violates the Eighth Amendment, because it is unreliable, arbitrary, slow and rare. This argument went well beyond the specific challenge to the use of the midazolam that was the focus of the case. Rather, Justice Breyer explained that he would stop trying “to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time” and likely bury the whole thing. Justice Breyer (whose opinion was joined here by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) is the first member of the current court to call for such a radical step.

We should not be too quick to embrace Justice Breyer’s thinking. If his conclusion is something other than a personal moral intuition, it rests on deeply contested claims about the accuracy, goals and costs of the death penalty. And while Justice Breyer’s dissent advanced extensive evidence for his claims, they are nonetheless claims that are hard for a judge, even a Supreme Court justice, to resolve dispassionately. Moreover, even if those claims are proved true, the more appropriate judicial course would be to invalidate the problematic parts of the system, not the system as a whole.

If we reject the broad legal claims of both Justices Scalia and Breyer, what is left? The court’s job is to continue resolving the fact-specific claims that a given punishment is cruel and unusual, even if that means that the court must only “patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds.” And the bigger question that Justice Breyer would have us confront — whether our death penalty system is necessary or oppressive — is best left to the states and the people.

Note that Baude himself never states his own preferred position on capital punishment, except that it should be 'left to the states of the people'. A German law professor might well consider this pusillanimous, but of course you could also call it admirably restrained.


Jochen Bittner and Anna Sauerbrey are the Face of Germany in the USA

Cultural Ambassadors. These are the people, usually journalists, who get picked by Home Country journalists to be the face of Foreign Country in Home's press. Usually, it's because they have learned to speak Home's language, and have connections there. They then become the sole source of information and commentary about Foreign Country for the vast millions of Home's residents who are mildly curious about Foreign Country, but not curious enough to do more than read an occasional newspaper column.

Right now, the preferred Germany-explainers to America are Jochen Bittner of Die Zeit, and Anna Sauerbrey of Die Welt. Here is an excerpt of Sauerbrey's most recent column in the New York Times, about the Muslim female blogger Betül Ulusoy (g) a lawyer who has blogged about facing discrimination because she wears a headscarf: 

That piety and independence, religion and political wit can go together indeed doesn’t fit into many Germans’ heads. Germany has become deeply secular in recent decades. Both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches have been losing members rapidly. Today, over a third of all Germans do not belong to any denomination.

Immigration, however, is bringing religion to Germany. The number of Muslims in Germany is estimated to be between 3.8 million and 4.3 million, about 5 percent of the population. That makes the Muslim community in Germany the second-largest in Europe, after France.

Though such projections show that Islam will remain marginal in Europe for decades to come, the fear of “Islamization” is widespread. It has led to the rise of right-wing populist parties from Finland to France. Their rise is usually regarded as a political phenomenon. It might as well be seen as a result of cultural alienation, though. In Germany, many have come to see faith as a spooky and potentially dangerous pathology. Want to make a character on a Friday night TV detective show look suspicious? Let him pray.

In Germany’s secular society, religion in general, and Islam in particular, is regarded as an atavism, a relic from a premodern era from which the country has luckily matured. Renunciation and deliberate submission, common elements of religion, throw the average German hedonist into a state of panic (unless they are part of a no-carbs diet or yoga routine). Why would anybody in her right mind refrain from eating or wrap a scarf around her head in the summer? 

So German readers, next time you're at a dinner party in the USA, be prepared to be confronted with the name Anna Sauerbrey and asked how she could possibly have been so brilliant/stupid as to write X in the New York Times.


Morton Feldman in a Cave

Over the weekend there was a heatwave, so I decided to decamp to the cellar of my apartment building, where it's always a nice cool 20°. I sat in a folding fishing chair, played this quartet from Morton Feldman through my earphones, and worked. I noticed a line of water droplets on the bottom of a pipe about 2 meters in front of me. Every minute or so one of the droplets would fall to the floor. Plook. Plook.

And then it hit me: somebody should put on a concert of Morton Feldman in a cave. The gradual, natural processes of deposition and accretion, the geologic time scale, the chill, slightly unnerving sense of calm -- what could be a better arena?

Feldman is popular in Germany, not least because he spent an 18-month DAAD fellowship in Berlin in the early 1970s. There are many talented German performers of Feldman's music, and of course Germany has some pretty nice caves.


Feckless Freeloaders v. Hot-Money Flows

Kevin Drum has the most intelligent commentary on the Greek debacle I've read in a long time, so I think I'll steal it:

Greece bears plenty of blame in this whole debacle. They borrowed way too much when their economy was booming; they refused to modernize their infamously porous tax collection, especially toward the rich; they lied through their teeth about their finances for years; and governments of both right and left have doggedly supported an insanely bloated public sector that would make even a Russian blush.

On the German (i.e., Northern European) side of things, the story of blame is a little more....technocratic. Banks made bets on interest rate convergences between north and south when the euro was introduced. This paid off, and for years they happily shoveled money into Greece at great profit. Greece's economy overheated, but the ECB kept monetary policy loose because that benefited Germany twice over: first by providing Germans with a good place to invest their money and second by providing Greeks with enough money to import German goods. Eventually, this hot money flow produced inflation, but monetary policy stayed loose anyway because the German economy was kind of sluggish at the time and needed the boost. Inevitably, this produced a capital account surplus in Greece and therefore a current account deficit. When the Great Recession hit, everything went to hell. Due to the hot money flows, Greek banks had become dependent on wholesale funding, and when that suddenly dried up a banking crisis got added to the rest of the mix. It's been downhill ever since.

Now: read those two paragraphs carefully. It's plain there's fault on both sides. But the fault of the Greek side is easy to understand and easy to put in moralistic terms. They lived high, they lied about their finances, and they coddled their government workers. It's easy to paint the Greeks as irresponsible wastrels who are just getting what they deserve.

The German side is quite different. Be honest: did you even understand it? It's all very technocratic, almost hydraulic in nature. Investors made bets on some derivatives; centralized monetary policy was not ideal for Greece; hot money flows inevitably produced current account deficits; and when the Great Recession cratered the economy it all turned into a full-blown banking and debt crisis. This is all very recondite. Sure, maybe it was Germany's fault, but in an abstract, bureaucratic way. It's a lot harder to see bad personal behavior here.

I'm not alone in thinking that once you dig into things, German behavior has been quite a bit worse than Greek behavior. But it's hard to make this case in a way that makes much sense emotionally. What most people see is a highly intricate and technocratic system on one side and a bunch of reckless, happy-go-lucky Greeks on the other side. So who are you going to blame?

In case you're wondering (I was), 'hot money' is an actual financial term of art.


Can All Germans Swim?

There's a heat wave going on in Germany right now. Trains are screeching to a halt, asphalt is melting, and people are flocking to local lakes to cool off. Yesterday, in this part of Germany alone, four adults drowned (g) in those lakes, and one six-year-old boy almost drowned.

This is pretty shocking. Four people in one day! Is this because they can't swim, or can't swim well enough? I wonder whether Germans routinely learn to swim during their education. This is standard in most parts of the USA, where hot weather and swimming pools and beaches are a fact of life. Maybe not so in Germany, where there are perhaps 15 really hot days in any given year.

Or perhaps it's a combination of (1) no lifeguard supervision; (2) alcohol consumption; and (3) murky water and uneven surfaces. Any other theories?


60% of 'Refugees' in Germany Come from Europe

The head of the Federal Ministry for Migration, Manfred Schmidt, describes the situation (g) in Germany:

It is still the case that a large fraction of asylum applications come from Western Balkan states, which means they have no chance of obtaining asylum. "As of the end of May we received 111,000 people from the 10 most important countries of origin. 68,000 came from the Western Balkans", said Schmidt. The number of migrants from Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina has dropped since these countries were declared 'secure countries of origin' by German authorities. Asylum applications from Kosovo also dropped drastically. By contrast, the number of applicants from Albania has increased rapidly: "30,000 Albanians want asylum in Germany. Traffickers are dangling false hopes in front of these people."

The chances of asylum being granted to people from the West Balkans is between .1 and .2 percent. However, they get 140 Euros a month each in 'pocket money' once they reach Germany. Schmidt wants to reduce that to reduce the incentive for economic migration.

 


China Will Soon Be Genetically Engineering Smarter, Sexier People

No matter how irreligious Germany gets, it shares with many Western European countries a common cultural heritage of Christian natural law thinking, especially about human dignity. This makes Germany queasy about things such as in vitro fertilization, surrogate parenting, embryo research, and pre-implantation genetic diagnostics. Some of these new technologies are banned, others allowed, all are regulated. It’s all a bit stuffy and old-fashioned, like the basement of an ecumenical summer camp building, with its ping-pong tables, disintegrating board games, and lukewarm cola.

China doesn’t share this heritage, increasingly doesn’t have to listen to the West’s lectures, and has little squeamishness about designing smarter humans:

China is spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually in an effort to become a leader in biomedical research, building scores of laboratories and training thousands of scientists.

But the rush to the front ranks of science may come at a price: Some experts worry that medical researchers in China are stepping over ethical boundaries long accepted in the West.

Scientists around the world were shocked in April when a team led by Huang Junjiu, 34, at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, published the results of an experiment in editing the genes of human embryos.

The technology, called Crispr-Cas9, may one day be used to eradicate inheritable illnesses. But in theory, it also could be used to change such traits as eye color or intelligence, and to ensure that the changes are passed on to future generations….

“The consensus among the scientific community is, ‘not for now,’ ” said Huso Yi, the director of research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Center for Bioethics.

Yet Chinese scientists seem in no mood to wait.

“I don’t think China wants to take a moratorium,” Mr. Yi said. “People are saying they can’t stop the train of mainland Chinese genetics because it’s going too fast.”

CRISPR is the stunning new gene-editing technique that makes editing animal and human genomes easy, precise, fast, and cheap. It may also allow us to resurrect extinct species.

Intelligence  is about 70-80% heritable, but is highly polygenic; we are only now beginning to isolate a few of the genes responsible for it. But research is rocketing forward so fast that it’s not out of the question to imagine genetic procedures to eliminate disease and boost intelligence within 20 years. When that happens, I am sure China will start doing it. After all, highly intelligent people are more orderly, more innovative, more law-abiding, and disproportionately responsible for economic growth and development. Once you set aside ethical quibbles, what's not to like?

If I had extra money lying around, I would invest it in (1) ultra-realistic Japanese sex dolls; and (2) Chinese genetic engineering. Those will be the growth industries of the next few decades.


Cousin Marriage is a Disaster for Developing Countries

In some Muslim countries, over 50% of marriages are arranged, and involve cousins:

Timthumb

A sophisticated recent study finds that this inbreeding is associated with truly staggering losses in IQ:

We found significant decline in child cognitive abilities due to inbreeding and high frequency of mental retardation among offspring from inbred families. The mean differences (95% C.I.) were reported for the VIQ, being −22.00 (−24.82, −19.17), PIQ −26.92 (−29.96, −23.87) and FSIQ −24.47 (−27.35, −21.59) for inbred as compared to non-inbred children (p>0.001). The higher risk of being mentally retarded was found to be more obvious among inbred categories corresponding to the degree of inbreeding and the same accounts least for non-inbred children (p<0.0001).

The risks of inbreeding have long been known:

Inbreeding (consanguineous marriages among humans) produces homozygous offspring, since the mating of pairs occurs between genetically closely related individuals.... Consanguinity has been associated with significant decline in mean values for height, weight and body mass index (BMI) and the subsequent depression on children growth, much influenced in proportion to their inbreeding coefficients with least variation for non-genetic factors [21]. Inbreeding is also thought to predispose offspring to neuropsychological disorders such as hereditary Parkinsonism [34]. Several studies have identified parental consanguinity as an important risk factor for mental retardation or ID [26][27][35], and it has been shown that inbreeding is correlated with reduced cognitive performance [36].

The study results, in graphical terms:

Journal.pone.0109585.g005_thumb[3]

The X axis is Full-Scale IQ. IQ scores of 75 and below are considered mentally disabled in Western countries, anything under 60 is profoundly disabled, generally requiring special education and lifelong assistance. (Which, of course, most developing countries can't afford.) There may be some confounding factors here, such as that higher-IQ, better-educated Muslims may be less traditional and more likely to avoid arranged cousin marriages, and higher-IQ wealthier Muslims may face less risk from malnutrition or pollution. But still, the well-known genetic danger of consanguinity is certainly explaining a lot of this unbelievably huge variance.

This is why IQ is so revealing. The debate on how to develop countries goes 'round and 'round, starting again every time the latest intervention (education, clean water, infrastructure) delivers less-than-overwhelming results. And the blame game goes back and forth, ad nauseam. But this study, and many more like it, point to an obvious factor which few squeamish PC Westerners are willing to discuss openly. Cousin marriage creates generation after generation of people with severe intellectual deficits. Eliminate it, and (after a few generations) you will unleash massive amounts of human capital that has been destroyed for centuries by the dead hand of tradition.


Credit Where It's Due: German Law Protects Gays in the Workplace

WorkplaceDiscrimination

A few days ago I pointed out the weak provisions of the German non-discrimination law on housing discrimination. It's only fair, though, to point out that the same law does prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation (g). It's still very difficult to prove a case and win damages in Germany based on the AGG, but at least the principle is there.

The US Congress has tried to enact the same protections many times over in a bill called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but failed. You need the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass the bill, and the President to sign it. So far, all three of those stars have not yet lined up in the right constellation, so the bill is not yet law. Many states have passed laws prohibiting discrimination against gays in the workplace, but 29 states still allow it.

I suspect a federal law might actually pass in the next 5-10 years. All you would need to do is get 10-15% of Republicans to vote for it and you would have it. (You would also need a Democratic President, of course.) I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think the change on this issue has been so dramatic in the last few years that getting 10-15% of Republicans is just possible.


Thomas Bernhard Taking No Prisoners

The blog 'The Philosophical Worldview Artist (Weltanschauungskunst für alle Weltanschauer) run by one Douglas Robertson (no idea who he is) publishes fine translations of German-language texts, including this typically scorching 1984 interview with Thomas Bernhard:

FLEISCHMANN: But surely with distance one ought to be able to write about the past more composedly.
BERNHARD: That’s the big cliché about contemplating the past, and it’s obviously totally false.  Old people can write books like that when they’re sitting paralyzed in their armchairs, but it’s not my mode, not yet; maybe the day after tomorrow I’ll still be excited; whenever I write anything, even something peaceful, I’m still basically excited.  In any case, excitation is a pleasant condition; when your blood is sluggish, excitation gets it moving, pulsing; it keeps you alive, and consequently keeps the stream of books flowing.  Without excitation there’s absolutely nothing; you might as well stay in bed.  Now for you, Miss Fleischmann  (laughs), being in bed  is of course only a way of passing the time when you’re excited—right?—and being in a book is every bit as much a pastime.  Writing a book is after all a kind of sexual act, but one that happens at a more leisurely pace than the literal act, which one engaged in when one was younger; it is, to be sure, much more pleasant to write a book than to go to bed with somebody.
 
FLEISCHMANN: Do you regard writing as a substitute for sexual fulfillment?
 
BERNHARD: “Sexual fulfillment” is just a catch-phrase, like, for example, “self-development.”  It’s unadulterated bullshit.  But of course I’ve already said what writing is.  I’d just be repeating myself if I said any more about it.
 
FLEISCHMANN: In this book Vienna is an institute for the annihilation of spirit; what does Vienna mean in your opinion?
 
BERNHARD: Well, as I’ve stated in the book, Vienna is essentially an art-mill, or the biggest art-mill in the world, into which everybody leaps of their own free will, and the current miller is the chancellor, who is in charge there, the cabinet ministers are the miller’s helpers, and all the singers, actors, stage-directors, fling themselves into the mill, and down below the flour comes out.  But this process can only be kept going for so long before the flour for some reason comes out all moldy and smelly.
 
FLEISCHMANN: And why do you think that it’s specifically in Vienna that artists are so [thoroughly] destroyed?
 
BERNHARD: Well, because here in Vienna is where the most spiteful people in the world are to be found; on the other hand you have this mill, the greatest [possible source of] amusement.  Is it not after all amusing to watch people, geniuses and people of good character, flinging themselves into it up at the top, and coming out all deformed down below?  Don’t you find it amusing?