Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Science denialism

Despite some accusations, global warming theory is not a fad. See the following paper:
Peterson, Thomas & Connolley, William & Fleck, John (September 2008). The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. American Meteorological Society.

The hypothesis was proposed over 100 years ago, and has been a focus of serious research since the 1950s or so, and has been the consensus opinion of climate researchers for about 20 years now.
The fact that most of the public kept their heads in the sand* through this process is irrelevant. Science does not progress by going back to square one at the request of every ignoramus who decides that he wants to passively investigate some phenomenon as a part time hobby.

This post was inspired by the discussions at Libertarians for Junk Science, and is related to my post at Freedom Democrats The Politicization of Climate Science.

*with the help of plenty of profiteers driven by ulterior motives

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Politicization of Climate Sciences

Written for Freedom Democrats

In the wake of Climategate, climate researcher Mike Hulme has articulated the ideal role of science in public discourse. Basically, he declares that scientific debates should be kept separate from ethical debates (leaving aside bias inherent in hypothesis generation and choice of research directions), while still informing our actions. This is a nice ideal, but ignores the fact that people will enter scientific debates with ulterior motives and it can be hard for the layman to distinguish between the sincere scientist and these charlatans.

In contrast to Mike Hulme's call for the separation of science and politics, we have his colleague James Hansen (head of NASA's Goddard) who is quite happy to transform his scientific prestige into a platform for political moralizing. In reviewing Hansen's new book for DailyKos, DarkSyde introduces him in this manner:

To be a top climate scientist today means being up to speed in graduate level physics, advanced mathematics, planetary astronomy, meteorology, paleontology, oceanography, bio and geo-chemistry, dealing with programmers and constantly shifting computer architectures, and now on top of everything else, you have to be a tireless political activist and media celebrity.(emphasis mine)

No, you don't have to be a political least not in Hulme's model of science and politics. The scientific method strives for consensus, while the political method strives for domination; If Hansen and DarkSyde want to make politicians out of scientists, then they should expect politicized resistance and deal with it as a political dispute.

When Hansen compares carbon emission credits to the Indulgences that sparked the reformation, he just sounds like a moralizing fool (even to someone like me who agrees with his preference for a carbon tax, in this case).

There is no necessary connection between doing research and political advocacy. A scientist does have a responsibility to communicate his findings to the public, and when his findings have urgent implications, there is not time to allow the knowledge to percolate through the formal education system (i.e. inform other researchers, who inform their students at university, who become teachers in the primary and secondary schools). So there is an imperative for some member of the field to directly communicate the field's findings to the general public, which probably means being "a media celebrity". However, this is an issue for all academic disciplines, and it is not a requirement for everyone in the field--certain individuals naturally distinguish themselves within the field as communicators and politicians (often taking jobs such as heading major research institutions), and these individuals are the natural public spokespersons of the field.

But what if the research findings have implications for economic policy? If the spokesperson ignored those implications, they would be neglectful in their communication to the public, but taking a position politicizes the field of study. Following Hulme's model, I suggest that that the scientist make a point of contacting political activists, informing them of the situation, and allowing them to advocate for policy changes. This may even include sitting down with them for a public Q&A, where the scientist acts as a resource on which they draw as they suggest policy responses. This could be either a live discussion, or a book where the first chapter describes the scientific situation and the subsequent chapters are written by activists/politicians who explore the implications.

I'm not saying that scientists should avoid politics all together, just that they shouldn't use their prestige as a practicing scientist to gain exceptional authority in their political advocacy (at least until they have retired).

Thursday, December 03, 2009

"Causes celebre" in the gay marriage culture wars

Written for Freedom Democrats

The culture wars surrounding gay marriage are dragging on, and each side has a new anecdote showing how they are the victim of injustice.

First well take a well known injustice from the gay marriage proponents, the risk of being prohibited from visiting one's partner in the hospital:

...after the 39-year-old was rushed by ambulance to a Florida medical center, she fought for her life alone.

Her partner of 18 years, Janice Langbehn, said she was not allowed to see Pond for eight hours as she lay dying, and their children were never given the chance to say goodbye.

A libertarian radical may want to avoid the issue of state recognition of marriage and look at what gives a hospital the right to turn away visitors, or what gives visitors the right to demand access to a patient...but such investigations would be largely academic and as a practical issue, we need to recognize (as the commentators here do) that the state has no business granting special privileges to people who adhere to a particular lifestyle or ideology. Any two people should be able to enter into a partnership with all of the rights and privileges typically associated with marriage.

The other story supports the contention of gay marriage opponents that the recognition of gay marriage will result in everyone being forced to express approval of gay marriages. This is basically the communitarian position that our lives cannot be coherently partitioned into public and private aspects. In this particular case, we are dealing with the social pressure to acknowledge major events in the lives of our co-workers and sympathize with their feelings regarding these events--our economic lives cannot be separated from our social and family relationships. A Massachusetts man claims that he was fired for refusing to express support for his coworker's same-sex marriage.

Vadala claims the woman...mentioned four times that she had married her partner. He said he then left the store briefly to visit the airport's chapel before returning.

"I found it offensive that she repeatedly brought it up," Vadala said. "By the fourth time she mentioned it, I felt God wanted me to express how I felt about the matter, so I did. But my tone was downright apologetic. I said, 'Regarding your homosexuality, I think that's bad stuff.'"

The woman, according to Vadala, then said, "Human resources, buddy — keep your opinions to yourself," before exiting the store.

Two days later, Vadala, who had been employed for just a matter of weeks, received a termination letter citing the company's zero-tolerance policy regarding "harassment" and "inappropriate and unprofessional" comments.

This story lends some credibility to the assertion that state recognition of gay marriage will essentially force everyone to kowtow to the idea that a gay marriage is just as valuable to a heterosexual marriage. I would normally consider that argument to be pure paranoia, but even with the example before me I have little sympathy for that concern. First, if these people are concerned about employers using their influence to silence their employees, then they shouldn't be fussing over gay marriage, they should be objecting to the fact that employment can typically be terminated without cause. Gays have to live with this reality every day when they hide their romantic lives from their employers out of fear of being fired for being gay. At least this guy got fired because of how he interacted with his coworker. Second, their "solution" is actually a more extreme version of the "problem": for fear of ideological conformity being imposed in the workplace, they want to impose an ideological conformity on the entire society. Funk that.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What were the Soviets thinking?

Cross-posted to FreedomDemocrats

The issue of trust is one that is central to politics, but often seems to get left out political philosophy. Our decisions of who to trust and how we can trust them depend on what we expect to occur if others get a power advantage over us. Conversely, this influences how we use our power when we gain advantages over others. All of this is of course based on our experiences*, and cannot be fully encapsulated in an ahistorical philosophy.

During the much of the Cold War, the balance of power was actually a balance of terror--the strategy of nuclear deterrence known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). My childhood was in the 1980's, in America. Even in my community of middle-class liberals, the Soviet threat was ever present. I'm not surprized to see that the Bulliten of the Atomic Scientists marks the early 80's as a period of increased risk of global nuclear war.

All of that fear is put into a broader perspective by Nicholas Thompson's article at Wired describing the Soviet doomsday machine. I'm not sure if I believe the facts presented (it seems to be based on rumors and an interview with a single Russian expat), but it is interesting to think about how the MAD stalemate would be influenced by a system that could launch a nuclear strike even if the entire civilian and military command structure was destroyed. At the least, the story got me in the mood for Halloween.

Another interesting fact of the Cold War is that the commies saw themselves (and their military interventions) as a progressive force. After all, most of their military actions were primarily targeted at at repressive feudal or colonial regimes--not at liberal democratic counties directly. Glenn Greenwald discussed the universality of war propaganda, in which he notes how the justifications of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan were eerily similar to the justifications of our own soldiers. So from the Soviet perspective, if they got power in Afghanistan, the country would be egalitarian, peaceful, and prosperous, but if their enemies gained power, it would remain repressive, warring, and impoverished.

Finally, here is probably the biggest issue underlying the entire Cold War, and I have no direct information about what the Soviets thought: What did they think would happen if they lost?

I know the American/Western side of this equation: their totalitarian system would be imposed on us, just as it had been imposed on East Germany. We had popular visions of such a system, ranging from Orwell's classic novel 1984 (also a pretty good movie) to the Swayze movie Red Dawn (one of my favorites for awhile, incidentally made in 1984, and being remade next year).

But what did the Soviet Union's public think would happen to them if their military were weak? Was it the classic "rape and pillage" of invading hordes? Or were their fears founded in Marxist theory? Did they expect trans-national corporations to establish polluting, dangerous factories while paying starvation wages and dismantling all social services, including the education system? Or perhaps even worse, their countries would become decapitalized colonies, producing commodities for export. Perhaps they would even become the battlefield for colonial wars among Western powers, who would inevitably start fighting among themselves once The Revolution was crushed.

I know that the Soviet state produced extensive propaganda, and that much of the public saw through it. But for those who feared losing the Cold War, does anyone know what they thought the consequences would be?

*For Drama and SciFi fans, the recent SyFy TV series, Battlestar Galactica, does an excellent job examining the issue of trust between warring groups.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Manned space exploration -- what a crock!

Cross-posted to Freedom Democrats. (note for new readers)
Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today—the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph, and the means that achieved it—the story and the demonstration of man’s highest potential.
--Ayn Rand
As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
--Henry David Thoreau
One of the things that has always baffled me about Ayn Rand (a self-described rational egoist and free-marketer) was her gushing endorsement of NASA's manned space flight program. She celebrates it as a symbol of the potential of rationality, but completely ignores the fact that this rationality emanated from the centralized, coercive state. The fact that this was a government program should have given her cause to consider whether this sort of project was, or ever could be, the product of free men. Another reason to pause is the recognition that this project was instigated in direct response to a challenge from the USSR--"let's see if we can beat them at their own game"!
Manned space exploration is pure political propaganda, financed by tribute from slaves. Rand should have seen that, but she (and her present-day disciples) are apparently blind to it. Erika Holzer says that Rand treated centralized, coercive planning as a given and figured that we might as well get something worthwhile (i.e. technology-based spectacles) out of it. But when Rand writes "Apollo 11’s triumph is not political; it is philosophical" she is elevating her own wishful thinking over the actual forces that drive human behavior. The Apollo program was political from its conception to its execution. It was conceived to justify corporate liberalism at home, and American hegemony abroad. It was designed to engage the sense of wonder of 10 year-old boys while also speaking to their hardnosed elders by demonstrating the awesome power of the USA.
The issue of practical benefits is absent from Rand's assessment of the Apollo program. Holzer even endorses the view (expressed by Krauthammer), that considerations of practicality are a distraction from the true purpose of the spectacle. However, this illustrates exactly why no rational, free man would expend substantial effort on this project. Krauthammer says that "we retreated" from the moon, but the truth is that "we" had no reason to stay. "We" went there simply to show that "we" could do it. Any attempt to create a permanent human presence on the moon or send people to Mars using modern technology would be the largest boondoggle in human history. Maybe these projects would be feasible after extensive robotic exploration and infrastructure development, but not in the near future.
There's a reason I've been putting we in quotes: the most perverse message from these "individualist" cheerleaders of manned space flight is that they portray human greatness as a social project rather than an individual project. They speak as though the only alternative to manned space flight is to vainly obsess over the eradication of poverty or get lost in shallow self-gratification (egoism, perhaps?). They ignore the possibility of redirecting money from manned space flight to basic scientific research, both terrestrial and cosmic. Most fundamentally they deny the possibility that individuals, left with control over their lives and the fruit of their labors, could ever contribute to anything worthwhile.
Note: The title may lead some readers to expect a full argument against sending people into space (see comments). Instead, these readers will find nothing more than an individualist criticism of Ayn Rand's argument for manned space exploration as a form of ideological propaganda. If there are any other serious arguments for manned space exploration, I do not know of them and this essay does not address them. I have not seen any serious proposals for a manned space exploration program that had scientific or economic goals. If such proposals existed, then I would retract the title, but so far everyone (including Presidents Kennedy and Bush) seem to view manned space exploration as ideological propaganda. My disdain for current proposals for manned space exploration do not extend to robotic exploration, or continued experimentation with long term (but near-Earth) space habitation, nor does it apply to some hypothetical future time when manned space exploration could have a serious economic or scientific purpose.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Common sense: it's what they asked for

Cross posted to Freedom Democrats

Glen Greenwald complains about how Glen Beck is presenting himself as a modern day Thomas Paine, by writing his own pamphlet called "Common Sense". I'm not sure exactly what Beck is getting at in the book, but I have no respect for his intellect (though his rants are quite amusing) so I won't be reading it. However, I doubt that Beck and his audience are really ready to hold up Thomas Paine as their mascot.

If you want to read some brilliant writing that contains innovative and profound thoughts (penned by a brave man), check out Pain's writing:

  1. Common Sense: A masterpiece of radical political propaganda. Paine took an idea that had previously seemed like common sense (allegiance to the monarchy) and presented it as pure madness.
  2. Agrarian Justice: An argument for the citizen's dividend funded by a land tax. As a matter of practicality, Paine suggested a lump sum payment to all young adults and regular payments to the elderly, all funded by an inheritance tax (which would effectively be a land tax, since he lived in an agrarian society).
  3. The Age of Reason: A critical examination of Christianity.
  4. Rights of Man: Defending the French Revolution against Burkean criticism.
To top off Paine's anti-conservative credentials, he typically presented elected government as the incarnation of the people's will, and would probably be baffled by the application of "Common Sense" to such a government (but maybe not if he had seen how the American experiment has turned out).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Whole Foods boycott: self-absorbed political fetishism

Reposted from Freedom Democrats

Radley Balko expresses his frustration with the healthcare reform proponents who want to boycott Whole Foods due to a WSJ Op-Ed written by John Mackey. This dispute brings up all types of issues (some reviewed at NYT), from the exaggerated influence of corporate CEOs to how the WSJ opinion pages are typically a partisan vomit pile, but one interesting factor is the revelation of fetishized thinking among the boycott organizers.

Balko's main argument against the boycott is that Whole Foods is a great corporate citizen (we've previously discussed Mackey's views on this topic). To anyone who actually cares about real people living real lives, this should immensely outweigh the fact that Mackey is writing in opposition to a particular health care reform proposal. In his followup, Balko also chastizes those who view unionization as being more important than worker inclusion in decision-making and benefits. He summarizes the union fetish thusly:

If Mackey’s opposition to unions is your reason for hating Whole Foods, sorry, but you don’t really care about workers. You care about unions.

Finally, there is a bit of a partisan fetish behind this boycott proposal. I think half of what set off the boycotters is that Mackey promoted traditionally Republican talking points in a mainstream newspaper full of Republican hacks. I'm sure that was really offensive, especially after the WSJ editors worked their Republican hack magic on Mackey's writing. Fortunately (as my pro-ObamaCare wife points out), most people are not partisan hacks and will not boycott Whole Foods over this.

Balko's final thesis seems to be that the boycott is really about power -- about squelching open open debate on proposals that one disagrees with.

These people don’t want a discussion. They don’t want to hear ideas. They want you to shut up and do what they say, or they’re going to punish you.

In many respects, the quest for power is the epitome of political fetishism--valuing an abstraction over the real value of human welfare. The basic process is that a person convinces himself that once he achieves the abstraction, everything else will take care of itself. The fallacy here is two fold -- first, these abstract goals arise from speculative social theories and we should not have any confidence in the cause-effect relations that are proposed; second, people adhering to different fetishized social theories will struggle over the abstraction (i.e. power) to the point that the original goal is forgotten about. As sung by Axel Rose:

But still the wars go on as the years go by
With no love of God or human rights
'Cause all these dreams are swept aside
By bloody hands of the hypnotized
Who carry the cross of homicide
And history bears the scars of our civil wars

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cult of the President; The Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama today awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 people. It was top news on Google News.

President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 16 "agents of change" on Wednesday, highlighting their accomplishments as examples of the heights a person can reach and the difference they can make in the lives of others.


Film star Sidney Poitier, civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery and tennis legend Billie Jean King joined former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in receiving the honor, the first such medals awarded by Obama.

So which president decided it was his role to honor people for achievements that are typically independent of the state? Who decided that the President was the ultimate arbiter of cultural achievement, thereby advancing the cult of the presidency?

It seems that JFK really initiated the Presidential Medal of Freedom in its current form (Truman used it for civilian contributions to the efforts of WWII).


The "Lone Wolf Initiative", profiling, and government by blacklist

Republished from Freedom Democrats

USA today has a cover story about the Federal Lone Wolf Initiative, an Obama administration program to foil the plots of "lone offenders"-- terrorists who plan their attacks in the absence of coordination with terrorist networks. Information about the program is sparse, and USA Today seems to be getting a few vague descriptions from anonymous informers within the FBI. Some of the tactics used by this initiative are reasonable (taking a second look at the records of convicts and the evidence in closed terrorism cases), while others sound a lot like profiling of the general civilian population ("suspicious purchases at fertilizer or chemical suppliers"). The ACLU says that they are concerned about the risk of racial and political profiling. Frankly, I think this type of profiling will be inevitable; the FBI will want to maximize the chance that all would-be terrorists are on this list, so they'll face constant pressure to incorporate any information that could improve predictions. They will inevitably use information that has implications for civil liberties.

The article doesn't indicate how this new watch list will be used. If the lone-wolf initiative casts a broad net, then one likely use will be to tag individuals for the secret no-fly list--which will also be the "no gun" list if some people have their way. If you believe Michael Chertoff (fat chance), there are currently only 250 Americans on this list, but the FBI estimates that 20,000 Americans are in the Terrorist Screening Database, which probably feeds information to the no-fly list, and the ACLU gives even higher estimates. We already know that the Feds tried to use consumer profiling techniques to build this list, and I feel pretty sure that they will try again.

Independent of the risk of profiling, any broad attempt to screen the civilian population will be rife with corruption, resulting either from the prejudices or political agendas of the administrators.

PS. We have previously discussed the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, which places even more extensive restrictions on people. While both lists represent a threat to due-process and a move towards government by blacklist, I believe that the no-fly list is substantially more threatening. In contrast to the SDN list, the no-fly list is secret and can include Americans. I don't mean to dismiss the unfairness of putting an innocent foreign national on such a list, but there is a big difference between being harassed in your homeland and being harassed in a foreign land.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Cap and Trade: better than the worst

Below are some thoughts on the cap-and-trade system making its way through Congress. This is in response to a discussion by some libertarian Democrats, in which the bill was heralded as a "free market" reform. I'm assuming the audience is familiar with the basic economics of the situation.

Overall, I'm tolerant of this legislation because I believe that we need to get serious about reducing our CO2 emissions. However, I don't think that it illustrates any revolutionary change in our economy or politics. In fact it is a good illustration of "more of the same", where special interest groups use their political power to rob the rest of us, and politicians respond to every problem (even problems they created) by expanding their own power, as discussed after the Freedom Democrats post. Those two tendencies have made substantial contributions to our environmental problems, and ultimately pose a greater threat to humanity than even rising sea levels, megastorms, and the spread of tropical disease.

I agree that Cap and Trade, being a broad and direct approach to the problem of CO2 accumulation, is better than micromanagement of indirect contributors to the problem (e.g. fuel efficiency standards). However, I don't think that this improvement is due to libertarian influence in the Democratic Party, and think that the "trade" part of the policy should NOT be lauded as a "free market solution".

First, this lighter form of regulation is due to broad changes in our political culture that have developed over the past 30 years -- and probably got their main push from Regan's political success (and possibly from an academic consensus and the development of new tools for enforcing broad regulations).

Second, there is nothing "free" about the invention of a market that has no reason to exist. As far as I can tell, Economists generally prefer a direct emissions tax over a cap and trade system. We only have the CnT system due to general economic ignorance among the populace (such that Republicans can score points by calling it "cap and tax", simply pointing out that it would increase costs in the same general manner that a tax would). CnT also seems to get some support from the fact that it is easily corruptible, allowing massive handouts to powerful special interest groups. The main effect of the market in emission credit will be to cause uncertainty in the price of carbon emissions. A market doesn't do anything productive if the government has already placed a hard limit on the supply of a good.

Which gets to another big "anti-market" aspect of the Cap and Trade system relative to a carbon tax: there is no way for the public to make tradeoffs between different goods. We are not free to decide, in aggregate, that the ability to emit carbon dioxide is valuable or not. No matter how valuable these credits are, we will not be able to produce more carbon dioxide. Conversely, if a technological breakthru allows us to produce clean electricity for the same cost as coal electricity, then the price of the credits will plummet and we will produce the same amount of CO2 as before. The only change is that the rentseekers and speculators will extract less wealth from the rest of us.

A tax would behave much more like an ideal free market where the price of a good tends towards the cost of its production.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Public Good", or "Tyranny"

Are speed limits a public good, or just a form of tyranny? Apparently, the answer depends on who you ask. I view speed limits from within the public goods paradigm -- that there is a conflict between the driver's desire for rapid transportation (or power tripping) and the general public's desire to avoid high-speed collisions. However, others seem to disagree and even consider it to be an altruistic act to undermine the enforcement of speed limits...implying that they view speed limits as a form of tyranny.

In this second category are the drivers who map out speed traps for Trapster. Trapster is part of the newest generation of Internet applications that rely on a community of volunteers to construct a map of speed traps for the benefit of the community of users. As far as I am aware, Trapster and similar systems provide no rewards to users who contribute information. This behavior seems to be driven by anti-authoritarian sentiments among the contributors ("F**k the police!") or perhaps by a more focused opposition to speed limits.

This issue raises a fundamental problem in the "public goods" justification for governmental action: if people disagree about whether the "public good" is actually good, then can it legitimately be considered a public good? At what point does it simply become tyranny? Some Georgists have argued that community collection of land rents would address this problem by dispersing the net value of the "public good" evenly among all citizens. I don't follow this line of thought, and am driven towards more traditional libertarian responses, either by devolving governmental power to the smallest geographic level and allowing citizens to "vote with their feet", or limiting governmental action to areas where that action is supported by almost all of the people in the jurisdiction.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The cult of the Presidency: cultural leadership

Cross-posted to SwordsCrossed and FreedomDemocrats.

During the Presidential campaign, Gene Healy at Reason wrote up an article about the Cult of the Presidency -- describing the unreasonable faith that many Americans place in the Presidency and its occupant.* Despite the hypocritical right-wing hand-wringing over the implications of Obama's effectiveness in mass politics, Obama cannot take credit for inventing the Cult of the Presidency.

A number of recent events have vividly illustrated one long-standing aspect of the Presidential cult -- the idea that the President is the ultimate arbiter of cultural worth and the representative of a national consensus on cultural issues. These events showed that Americans expect the President to be the ultimate representative on issues as broad as military valor, piousness, and athletic accomplishment.

It is this last issue --condemnation of James Harrison for abstaining from the customary White House reception for the Superbowl victors-- that really shows the American people's obsession with the President's cultural leadership. Harrison was roundly condemned for bucking convention and the decision of his team (and his failure to provide a reasonable explanation for doing so). The more extreme commentary depicted his refusal not just as a foolishly missed opportunity, but as a snub against the entire American nation:
I find Harrison’s quote to be in the slap in the face you, me, the entire Pittsburgh Steelers organization, the NFL, the President or the United States, and our entire nation.
Other commentators examined what might pass as a good explanation for his behavior:
Some people say that he just doesn’t see a presidential visit as anything special, and that he’s just being a rugged individual. Harrison did, in fact, pass on a trip to the White House in 2006, when the Steelers won the Super Bowl and when George W. Bush was president.

But most people who exercise individualism usually have put some real thought into why they’re defying the status quo. They don’t just blurt out nonsense.
I would have loved for Harrison to say something like "I've received enough recognition from the league and our fans; the President has his own job to do and I don't think this is a good use of time for either of us." Unfortunately, he didn't give any such explanation, so we'll never know how American football fans would have responded to a direct criticism of the President's role as cultural leader.

On the issue of recognizing military valor, it is reasonable that the President would be involved. After all, he is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. Likewise, it would be appropriate for the President to recognize outstanding contributions from any government employee.

I think that the President's role as military leader makes it easy for his office to experience a sort of mission creep in cultural areas. When he recognizes the sacrifices of soldiers under his command, he has to appeal to the values that led the soldier to make his sacrifice. This quickly brings us to religious issues, and other profound cultural statements.

Of course, this bumps right up against the notion of the US government as a secular institution. To those who would encase the Presidency in their own religious rhetoric, a good response comes from Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Allaince:
President Obama is not the Pastor-in-Chief of the nation and Shirley Dobson's Task Force is not the spiritual judge of the president's personal or official actions.
I also wonder how the religious-right reconcile their merger of religion and politics with Jesus' prohibition against public/political displays of piety.

In summary, we don't have to be die-hard libertarians to object to the idea that the President embodies a national cultural consensus. We don't even have to be fans of cultural pluralism -- we only have to believe in the separation of power and responsibility among various institutions in society: the President is in charge of running the government, not guiding our cultural life.

*Following the election, some progressives took a moment to reconsider their relationship with Obama now that he had won the election, but this did not obviate the need for a continued "Cult of the President Watch" at, reporting episodes of the volk fawning over Obama. The zealous adoration of President-elect Obama bothered me also, and I felt a bit nauseous when I heard that some cities had made special arrangements to name streets after Obama, not only while he is alive, but while he is still President. Getting elected to the Presidency is undoubtedly a great personal accomplishment, but the social accomplishment of electing a black man is not Obama's accomplishment -- it is the accomplishment of all those people who fought racism throughout American history.