Educational Feudalism

I apologize for the sparse posting of late, as I do have to do school research every once in a while. (Shocking, but true…) Most recently I have been researching the general issue of school choice, focusing in on vouchers, charter schools, and school districting. One point in particular has me absolutely horrified.

Not having gone to public school, I had naively assumed that students could attend any public school within their school district. In fact, the districts themselves are carved up into geographical blocs for each school. Students are assigned to one particular school based on where they live; it is possible to request admission to another school, but there must be special circumstances and the status quo is very much against the student asking to transfer.

According the the numbers I have seen, only 25% of students go to "schools of choice," i.e. schools to which they were not assigned. This includes the 11% of students who attend private school; so only about 15% of public school students have chosen their school (often via magnet schools, charter schools, etc). The other 85% attend the school to which they have been geographically assigned.

Is it any surprise that people speak of "escaping" poor schools? If a school provides a poor education, most students have no choice but to suck it up and accept the destruction of their dreams for the future. This is a classic government-mandated monopoly, where the fate of our children is written in the very earth on which they live, much like that of the feudal serfs of old. To escape the educational liegelord is admittedly easier now than was escaping the real nobles of old, but not much.

This guarantees that wealthier families will be forced to move away from poorer neighborhoods in search of decent educations for their children. The emergence of gentrification on the one hand, and poverty-stricken ghettos on the other, is due in large part to this indefensible partitioning of our cities into those areas assured of decent schools, and those denied them.

To allow students to attend any public school in their district should be an obvious move. It forces the schools to compete against each other, while not reducing the resources of the district as a whole. It also makes no statement on educational or political philosophy as do voucher programs and the like, aside from an antipathy to the emergence of petty fiefdoms who lord it over our children. (If we are to have fiefdoms, they should at least be BIG fiefdoms; it's the American way…) Moreover, it reduces the desperate need for families to move out of certain neighborhoods because of the abysmal schools there.

Can anyone think of a reason why any thinking person, of any political party, would oppose ending this geographic segregation?



Our ability to manipulate DNA is growing at a nearly-exponential rate. We are getting better at sequencing genomes, or mapping out new strands of DNA. One year ago, it cost about $10 million to sequence a human genome. Today it costs about $2 million. The hope is to reduce the cost to about $1000, making it feasible to sequence the genome of every hospital patient and make tailormade treatments possible. This is projected to happen within a decade at most.

At the same time, we are getting better at altering DNA. The most promising technique, using retroviruses, would ideally let doctors modify the DNA of every cell in your body with a single injection. We are years away from that stage, but moving closer all the time. Soon, we will need to decide what genetic modifications are ethical, and what modifications are monstrous.

Most people would agree that genetically-inherited conditions should be eliminated once we get the chance. Doing so would alleviate much misery in the world. But why stop there? The human body is not perfect, after all. Why not make a few tweaks that could make the world a much better place, even if we are messing with our basic makeup?

That's the basic idea behind Transhumanism, a movement built around the idea of using advancing technology to design a new and better human. This means not only genetics but nanotechnology and cybernetics as well; but genetic modification hits closer to home, being a fundamental alteration in the very stuff of our bodies. But the benefits of doing so could be tremendous.

One prominent work arising from Transhumanism is Edward Smith's Catalogue of Correctable Omnipresent Human Flaws. The first several entries all address the endless growth and replacement of human skin, nails, and hair. This wastes energy and organic material, produces dust and dead cells that are fertile soil for bacteria and microbes, and is the major cause of our need to constantly clean ourselves and our clothing. Smith proposes that these processes should be rewired so that they are controlled consciously by the frontal lobe, and can be turned on and off as needed. Doing so would save vast amounts of water now used for washing, ease the strain on our bodies, and make diseases much less common (as well as nearly eliminating problems of body odor).

What's not to like?

Of course, later entries in the Catalogue go off into more bizarre territory, such as altering the bone structure of the neck, shoulders, and fingers for greater range of motion. These and other categories represent not minor gains in efficiency but fundamental alterations to the human body. And to be honest, even the more extreme entries on the list are quite tame, compared to what we could do once we can manipulate the genetic code as well. As Smith himself states:
It is important to first focus on corrections rather than enhancements, the reason being that corrections are limited in their scope (there are most likely only 40-50 possible corrections) and mostly benefit an individual by themself, whereas enhancements are virtually unlimited in their scope, are mostly beneficial to an individual in competition with others, and/or are prone to abuse. Pursuing the latter traits may thus touch off a rash of socially mutually-destructive genetic competition if it is not clear that such enhancements must only be made with the most rightful and socially responsible of intentions, as characterized by the geneticly-determined character of the enhanced beings…The further a trait falls toward the enhancement end of the spectrum, particularly in the case of competitive enhancements, the more dangerous it is, and thus the more rightful it's bearer's temperament must be.
As frightening as it is, we are on the verge of entering a world in which we can redesign ourselves from the bottom up—or be redesigned. Yet this is not simply about physical traits; wherever you fall in the nature/nurture debate, it is clear that genetics play some role in the formation of our character. How long can it be before a loving parent decides to reengineer an unruly son to make him more managable? Or before a tyrannical government does the same to its populace?

How can we reap the benefits, while escaping the terrible dangers?


Pork and Broken Windows

Apropos of the effort by N.Z. Bear, Instapundit and many others to have bloggers identify pork legislation in their congressional districts, and then to lobby their congresscritters to give the pork up to help fund hurricane relief, the people at Samizdata are debating what exactly is defined as pork, especially in light of the new NASA program to return to the moon.

In the comments, one person asked whether the focus on pork was worth it, given that it takes attention away from inefficient spending in the "legitimate" government programs that ends up wasting far more money than pork ever can. He cites the rampant mismanagement of our health-care programs as an example, which wastes tens of billions of dollars annually.

Commenter Julian Morrison responds:
Is non-pork waste worse? I'm not so sure. Monetarily, yes. But I propose by analogy to the theory of "broken windows policing", that pork is worse because it's openly corrupt. Therefore, it erodes the moral base of the other sorts of government spending and as a result, makes it infinitely harder to argue a case against other spending.

To put that another way: money spent dependent on a moral and reasoned case, can be stopped by proving the countercase. But when the public is habituated to seeing money spent "just because" and to feed vested interests, no countercase finds traction.
It seems to me, as I read about the kinds of pork programs that are slipped in by congressmen, that most have very little practical value. Bridges to nowhere, John P. Senator Memorial Nature Trails—some of them cannot even be said to advance the interests of particular factions or wealthy donors. (Not many, true.) Rather, I suspect that for many congressman, pork projects are simply a status symbol. First, you get to plaster your name over a permanent feature of the landscape; Robert Byrd is notorious for this, as the West Virginia road system has his name on signs practically everwhere you look.

Second (and this is just my speculation), it is a status symbol among other congressman because it demonstrates your power to interfere with the budgeting process, and divert Federal money to purposeless programs of your devising. Essentially, pork would be the elected official's version of conspicuous consumption, with legislators competing to waste the most money just to show that they can.

Overly cynical? Possibly. But it remains true that pork is seemingly wasteful by design, and disrespectful to the fiduciary duty of our congressmen to the electorate. We have enough problems with cash flow that we don't need to invent more of them.

Global Warming—On Mars?

The JPL probe Global Surveyor has been orbiting Mars for the last nine years, allowing scientists to collect detailed information about changes in the Martian geography. They have been surprised to find that the Martian surface is much more active than previously thought. In particular:
[F]or three Mars summers in a row, deposits of frozen carbon dioxide near Mars' south pole have shrunk from the previous year's size, suggesting a climate change in progress.
Anybody burning fossil fuels on Mars that we don't know about?

In all seriousness, scientists specializing in climate change here on Earth had better find a way to account for the new data, if they can find the time in between ranting about methane emissions and SUV's. I'm all for eliminating harmful emissions, especially if we can do that by transitioning away from petroleum, but we need to keep a sense of perspective. If much of the climate change we are experiencing is not due to human action, nor can it be reversed by human action, then economic development becomes all the more vital. Only advances in technology will give us the tools we need to thrive in a changing climate, and those advances will come more slowly if general economic activity is choked off by Kyotoesque government controls.


While We're Waiting for Serenity

[Blogging has been light lately while I introduce my roommate to the joys of "Firefly." As long as I'm on that general theme, here's a little something I wrote two summers ago that I rather like.]


I am snug in the chamber,
waiting for the jolt against my back
that will launch me forward. How long will I wait?
A week? A year? Fifty? I was born
for glory, to be sent on wings of fire
to do the work of a lifetime in one

For what cause will I be used?
I hope that it is just. Perhaps I will strike down
a murderer, or a would-be rapist.
(I hope that such a one does not
use me instead. The indignity of it
would be unspeakable.)

I am a knight of lead and brass,
honored with the noble task
of making all men equal.
That duty is mine, and I gladly wait
for the moment when the hammer strikes
and I fly off into destiny.


Senators, Reconsidered

As the Roberts nomination hearings drag on and people get a chance to see just how stupid and pompous many senators are, on both sides of the aisle, a lot of people have begun thinking about the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for direct election of senators. Some are now saying that this was a bad thing, and would like it repealed.

Some history is in order, since almost nobody knows how senators were chosen at first. Originally, the only body of government that was elected by the people was the House of Representatives; the president was elected by specially-chosen delegates to the Electoral College, of course, but senators were sent to Washington by the various state legislatures. Often the Senator would be a powerful former member of the state legislature; just as often he would be a tool of more powerful members of the legislature. But it is significant that the more powerful house of Congress was filled with people intimately connected to and responsible to the state governments.

At present, the state governments have practically no input into the workings of the Federal government, particularly not with respect to the formation of law. It is unsurprising that Congress frequently offers huge Federal grants to the states on the condition that they change their laws to match what their betters in Washington desire. In effect, Congress is now dictating policy to the states on a regular basis. This would not happen so often if the state governments themselves chose their senators.

(Indeed, that was the intention of the original arrangement. The Senate is primarily arranged to protect the rights of individual states, with equal representation for each government instead of for each citizen.)

At any rate, because senators are now subject to the people instead of their legislatures, instead of being an elite of the elites, many have the same general characteristics as most of their compatriots in the House: cheap populism and parochialism. This is something of an unfair libel; yet while once the Senate was known as a seat of skillful oratory, now Senate proceedings are boring and forgettable. I challenge my readers to come up with one quoteworthy speech from the last twenty years on a legislative issue…

For myself, I would much prefer that the 17th Amendment were repealed. It would refocus voters' attention back to the state legislatures, many of which have taken the opportunity granted by their relative unimportance to become backward, corrupt cesspools of political idiocy of the first order. But I would also like the House of Representatives to be abolished entirely and replaced by direct popular voting on legislation, just to make things interesting.

Hmm. I really should upload my paper on that subject.


The Decline of Courtship

Several days ago, a friend of mine was reminiscing about how he had sung Ladino courtship songs to girls of his acquaintance, to great effect. From that we moved on to the topic of courtship songs in general. (By "courtship song" I mean a song used by the man to declare his love for a woman, and convince her of the ardor of his love, when the two were not previously involved.) We agreed that courtship as an idea had more or less disappeared from modern music. Its replacements are: pining away from unrequited love (or attraction at any rate), rhapsodizing over a love already established, or focusing on the physical act of sex directly.

(Oddly enough, the one modern music genre where courtship survives is in country-western; and the subjects are usually already married, and seeking to restore a lost love. This stretches my definition, but given the paucity of competition, I'll take it.)

Meanwhile, I went with some friends down to a dance club in the Village. This was a classy place with a cover charge and lavish facilities; the local rock station was doing a live broadcast of the main DJ. Beers were $7; bottles of water were $5. I say this only to make the point that this was not exactly a lower-class establishment, nor should it be written off as an expression of low culture, as opposed to a "real" culture that "average" people have.

The first thing I noticed is that the music was very, very loud. It seemed expressly designed to make conversation impossible. Even if you are in the next room, you cannot hold a conversation without shouting. If speech is no longer available as a means of communication, what is left is physical interaction. In other words, the dancing itself becomes the only real form of communication between strangers.

A word on the dancing. I use the term with some hesitation; several members of my family are dance teachers, and the "bump-and-grind" style now popular does not easily fit into traditional models of dance. My brother describes it, aptly enough, as "sex with clothes on." Generally, the man stands behind the woman or faces her directly. They then press their hips against each other and, well, bump and grind.

One might wonder how it is that complete strangers will become such intimate dance partners, especially when there can be no speaking beforehand. Generally, the man must make an approach and initiate the dance, usually by physical contact. The woman then evaluates the man by his appearance, apparent skill, and the manner of his approach. This can be neither too aggressive, too direct, or too hesitant; it seemed that a casual style was most successful. If the woman finds the man acceptable, she will dance with him. If not, she will turn away or give some other physical cue to get the point across. The whole process is remarkably quick: a man can make an approach, be shot down, and move on to the next prospect within two seconds.

The sexual nature of the encounter is emphasized by the hip-hop lyrics to which people dance. When Allan Bloom was describing rock music as "having one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire," he hadn't seen nuthin' yet. Modern hip-hop lyrics specifically direct dancers to sleep with each other. I mean this literally.

In summary: whereas before people were governed by rules of courtship, which kept the initial stages in the realm of language, nowadays many people want to skip straight to the physical.

What does this mean? I don't know, but I doubt it means anything good. In a time when people are feeling increasingly alienated and isolated, to take refuge in cheap physicality by excluding communication seems only to exacerbate a fundamental problem.


Quote of the Day

Here's some context: The Defense Department reports that from 1983 to 1996, 18,006 American military personnel died accidentally in the service of their country. That death rate of 1,286 per year exceeds the rate of combat deaths in Iraq by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1.

That's right: All through the years when hardly anyone was paying attention, soldiers, sailors and Marines were dying in accidents, training and otherwise, at nearly twice the rate of combat deaths in Iraq from the start of the war in 2003 to the present.

Somehow, though, when there was no political hay to be made, there was no great outcry, or gleeful reporting, or erecting of crosses in the president's hometown about this much higher death rate. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find any contemporary expression of concern by reporters, politicians or political activists about the 18,006 American service members who died accidentally in service of their country from 1983 to 1996.
—John Hinderaker, writing for the Orlando Sentinel. As he writes earlier in the piece, we as a body of citizens are now engaged in a great experiment: trying to fight a war while ignoring the strategic picture or larger context, and focusing only on our casualties. As to how it will end, only time will tell.


Are Progressive Taxes a Good Thing?

The standard wisdom of American politics is that the poor, who have so much less income to work with, should therefore pay proportionally less than others of greater means, i.e. the rich and the middle class. This would seem to be an act of benevolence toward the poor, since they are benefiting from government activity largely thanks to the tax payments of others.

More recently, between the policies of Bill Clinton, the 1996 Republican Congress, and the Bush tax cuts (via adjustments to the lowest tax bracket and the Earned Income Tax Credit), well over a third of American families no longer pay Federal income tax of any kind. These are generally from the poorer end of the population; therefore, the poor are clearly being helped by our tax policy.

But are people really helped by being removed from the tax rolls? Or are they actually being set up for a terrible betrayal by government?

Many have argued at length about the pernicious economic effects of high marginal rates, arguing that a broad tax base would be better for everyone. I would like to examine another side of the argument. Let us consider the Federal government as a rational actor.

Now, at some level the government's policies are constrained by the need to increase tax revenue—perhaps even to maximize revenue. Therefore, the government will more readily pursue policies that will generate more taxes than those generating fewer, let alone those policies decreasing tax revenues. (That this theory only works if our congressmen understand basic economics is, of course, its gaping flaw. But regardless.)

In our present fiscal situation, wealthy people and corporations pay high Federal income taxes, and poorer people pay no income taxes at all or very few. Therefore, it makes sense for our rational actor, the Federal Government, to make laws that give preference to the rich and corporations over the poor, since tax revenues respond much more quickly when the rich get richer than when the poor get less poor. Such additional revenues can naturally be used to succor the same poor that the government has just victimized, making the poor indebted to the government and to the particular elected officials of each district.


Let's say that millionaires pay 50% average taxes. People making $10,000 a year or less pay nothing. Suppose that a given area has one family who owns a fire-extinguisher company with a gross income of $1,000,000, and 100 family making $10,000. As is, total taxes equal half a million dollars ($500,000).

Some politicians then get a brilliant idea. They pass a law mandating that each family must keep one fire extinguisher in their kitchen, garage, and master bedroom. This law is advanced in the name of public safety: "After all, if it saves just one life…" Fire extinguishers are expensive and require continual maintenance, so each family must now pay $1,000 to the fire-extinguisher company. So now the rich family makes a total of $1,100,000 gross per year, while everyone else is left with $9,000. Tax revenues increase to $550,000 yearly. The rich family's after-tax income also increases $50,000.

Now, government has an extra $50,000 to play with. After spending just half of it (if the town is lucky) on pet projects, the politicians notice that many people are running short on money, and use the remailing $25,000 to fund a government entitlement for the absolute worst off. Say that 50 families receive $500 each.

In short, the rich become richer, the poor become poorer, and government wins both because they get more money to fritter away and because 50 families are now dependent on government's generosity. That the government got them into the situation in the first place will be quickly forgotten.

Is this such an unlikely scenario? Who is it, indeed, that benefits from artificially high argicultural prices, and who is it that must pay them? Who is it that benefits from the horrid patchwork of telecom laws, and who is it that must pay high prices because of them? To my regret, I could go on all day.

Now is this due entirely to the Federal government's skewed cost/benefit situation caused by the "progressive" tax code? I doubt it. But I suspect that if the tax base were indeed broadened so that nearly all families pay a share, no matter how small, we may find that the government suddenly cares much more about the welfare of the poor.

Comments Update

Blogger has enabled word-verification anti-spam control on comments, which means that I can give open comments another shot. (And there was much rejoicing...)


Comments Restricted

I hate to do this, but the spammers have pushed me over the edge. Until I figure out if Blogger allows me to delete spam comments, people will need to log into Blogger to comment. I'll be looking into setting up a guest Blogger account for people without their own accounts, but until I do, you're stuck. Sorry.

I'm beginning to think that spammers should be declared "digital outlaws," i.e. any form of hacking or other electronic attack against them would be without legal penalty. This is getting ridiculous. I mean, my blog usually gets less than 20 hits a day! If they're spamming me, they've got to be spamming everyone. The h*** with that!

Poetry Analysis

I had come across an absolutely staggering poem on Belmont Club some months ago and felt a need to do a critical response. I never got around to it until today, when Wretchard linked to it again. This poem by Judyth Hill was apparently hailed by the peace movement as a thing of beauty. Here it is:
Wage peace with your breath.

Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.

Breathe in terrorists
and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.

Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.

Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.

Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud.

Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.

Make soup.

Play music, memorize the words for thank you in three languages.

Learn to knit, and make a hat.

Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief
as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.

Swim for the other side.

Wage peace.

Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious:

Have a cup of tea and rejoice.

Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.
In short, the prescription for dealing with war and destruction is to ignore it, to visualize yourself in some homespun fairyland where good, cleansing breaths can change the world. How precious.

Aside from that, it's such mind-numbingly bad poetry I don't even know where to begin. But Ms. Hill has suffered for her art, and now it is my turn.

Breathe in… breathe out

I am a big believer in proper breathing to promote tranquility, but this is ridiculous. Even being generous and assuming that Ms. Hill is using this phrase metaphorically, still the proper response to bloodshed is not to imagine that it never happened. Continuing with the specific pairings used, we see the understandible pair of rubble and buildings, but every other pairing is unexpected and verges on the bizarre. I do not know what firemen have to do with red-winged blackbirds, nor confusion with maple trees. This whole section seems like a giant non sequitor.

Wage peace…

This phrase, once startling in its unexpectedness, is now tired and stale. Besides, one does not "wage peace." Peace is defined an absence of conflict, and thus would not be "waged" at all. Of course, this is the major flaw of the peacenik camp. They assume that if we simply struggle for peace hard enough, it can happen. There is no such thing as a necessary war, or even (gasp) an inevitable war, because love and soothing folk music will conquer all.

Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.

Riiiight. "If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail." (And isn't "clean rivers" a goal, rather than a tool?) None of these "tools" are fit to do any of the hard work that the world actually needs. At the very least they could have been cucumber seeds… Reasonable people seek out the tools needed for the job at hand. They do not begin with a tool and work outward.

"…memorize the words for thank you in three languages."

I know the words for "thank you" in six languages that I can think of. It does not make me a better person.

Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief
as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.

I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. The only time I have ever seen fish make a gesture, or anything remotely close, is when they are eating food or else attacking other fish. I suspect that Ms. Hill's metaphors are getting away from her.

Act as if armistice has already arrived.

No. That is the best way I know to ensure that the armistice will never arrive in truth. The way to end wars is either to win, lose or draw; in any event the choice must be made. As Berthold Brecht said, "What if they held a war and nobody came? Why, then the war would come to you."

The good thing about having ideological opponents who also tend towards the fine arts is that every so often, one of them will produce such a monumental piece of self-parody as this.

The Reciprocating Effect of Political Extremism

One of the more common activities within the political blogosphere, on both sides of the political divide, is to gloat/agonize over a statement by someone on the other side that demonstrates inhuman callousness or simple evil, the better to demonize the associated political faction. Examples: Air America host Randi Rhodes says that President Bush "takes a lot of joy" from seeing dead Democrats, while the Reverend Bill Shanks says that New Orleans had it coming for being morally corrupt. There are countless other examples of such things, and the reactions from the other side, from every single event of political consequence in the last several years; it is a pattern that we in the blogosphere have grown used to.

One thing I have noticed for a while is that very often, a heinous bit of drivel will often inspire similarly heinous responses. Consider this (depressingly familiar) hypothetical: a conservative/liberal site will quote a liberal/conservative pundit saying that all Republicans/Democrats are evil. Commenters go in a frenzy, soon slipping into blanket condemnations of all liberals/conservatives for being evil. Thus, what begins as a way of castigating the other side for violating standards of simple decency in political discussion will end by infecting your own side with the same sort of extreme us-vs.-them Manichaean dogma.

This is not an argument for moral relativism. When two sides are in conflict, one must necessarily be superior to the other. But people should be careful not to let this sort of ideological backwash contaminate their own thinking, or influence their decisions. The fact is that the majority of both parties is made up of decent people. On the other hand, it is to the shame of the Democratic Party that instead of marginalizing this sort of extremism (as the Republicans did to Pat Buchanan, David Duke, or even Trent Lott for a much less serious offense), the Democrats have instead embraced it. Consider the implausibiliy of RNC chairman Ken Mehlman ever saying, "I hate Democrats and all that they stand for," and then consider that DNC chairman Howard Dean said precisely that about Republicans!

I think, though, this has much to do with being the party out of power. During the Clinton years, Republicans were rather nasty in their own right. Indeed, much of what made me a supporter of the Democrats back then was the vitriol coming from the Right (along with a simplistic acceptance of NPR's reporting…), just as I tend to oppose the Democrats now because of the blatant derangement of their national leadership, to say nothing of the hard-core grassroots.

But what I see now is an incredibly dangerous effect of the instant communication that the Internet allows. Because everyone can now see the worst that a given faction has to offer in real time, it becomes very easy to judge that entire faction on the basis of its most vile members. This inspires a hardening of one's own positions in response. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. Is it any surprise that many speak of an emerging ideological civil war in America, a rending of the social fabric?

Now, members of the other side must be opposed by any means necessary regardless of the costs, simply because the other side is Darkness Incarnate. Worse, by allowing our thoughts to be shaped by such hatred, we become a little bit more like what we despise. This of course makes the problem all the more acute.

What can be done? Are we past the point where simple decency can win the day?

Pink vs. Gray

Bill Whittle, Hollywood screenwriter and essayist of such power and eloquence as to make grown men weep, has been watching the nation's reaction to New Orleans, and he is mad. Read his new essay on Tribes, if you do nothing else this week.


The Ethics of Martial Law

As time drags on after the initial impact of Katrina and much of New Orleans remains without power and resupply, looting is intensifying. Not only are foodstuffs and survival goods being looted (which could be defended on the basis of pikuach nefesh [acting to save life], provided that you are not actually taking the goods from people who need them), but jewelry stores, electronics stores, and even hospitals and pharmacies. Much of the rescue effort in the city has been halted after rescuers came under fire from roving gangs.

After some hesitation, the Mayor of New Orleans has now resolved to clear out the looters. Martial law was declared, and at this moment several thousand police officers from Louisiana and surrounding states are taking positions outside the city. According to a member of The High Road who is being mobilized, officers have been instructed to take as much food and ammunition as they can carry. Looters will be brought under control by any means necessary; police officers who engage in looting themselves are to be shot on sight. (Sadly, many New Orleans cops have apparently joined the looting instead of enforcing order; New Orleans has a reputation for corrupt police, but this is despicable.)

This has sparked widespread debates on the morality of using deadly force on looters. On the one hand, theft is not generally considered an offense meriting death, unless it involves an attack on someone present at the time; the assumption is that the victim is being threatened with deadly force, and may respond in kind. But in this case, much of the looting is taking place in abandoned shops; the looters are apparently quite courteous to each other, and there is no direct danger from their actions. (Naturally, those looters breaking into occupied hospitals and nursing homes and attacking the patients would merit lethal force according to most reasonable judgements.) What grounds would the police or individuals have for killing such nonviolent looters?

The argument for martial law holds that in times of anarchy, even crimes against property contribute to the general atmosphere of lawlessness, which in the extreme case will seem to excuse violence against innocents. Many reporters and people on the scene speak of the feeling of "entitlement" shared by most of the looters, or a desire to "fight the Man." Since Katrina hit just before the end of the month, many welfare recipients lacked the money to evacuate the city entirely; a disproportionate number of these have this sense of entitlement, and have resorted to violence in the past few days when their depradations are opposed. In an environment such as this, all means must be taken to restore order, even if particular individuals may "only" be stealing.

Jewish law recognizes the need for emergency power to kill. A little-known facet of death-penalty law is that the capital crimes listed in the Torah, as well as the elaborate rules regarding when execution is allowed, are only a baseline. The Sanhedrin retained broad discretion to kill criminals under emergency conditions, even when the law would normally forbid it. A classic case was Shimon ben Shetach's execution of the seventy witches of Ashkelon on the same day, despite the prohibition against holding multiple executions on one day.

The police will apparently use means short of lethal force when possible, but will not hesitate to kill if necessary. I expect the casualties to mount into the hundreds, and I see no better option than what is about to happen. Indeed, if martial law had been declared from the beginning, the lawlessness could have been nipped in the bud, saving many lives. Yet another example of the saying, "Those who are kind when they should be cruel, will end by being cruel when they should be kind."