“The Reason That Makes You Afraid of It”

The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”

To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

–Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness

Apropos of selfishness, a snippet from my Phil 100 class today, devoted to discussing J.W. Davis et al, “Aggressive Traffic Enforcement: A Simple and Effective Injury Prevention Program,” Journal of Trauma 60:5 (May 2006). Continue reading

Stop, In the Name of Dog (Before You Break Your Leg)

I just saw some guy walking two beautiful golden retrievers down Witherspoon Street in Princeton, New Jersey. He crossed the street without really looking where he was going, then nearly collided with a car turning into the intersection. I repeat for the nth time that if American crosswalks were designed like the crosswalks of Barcelona, none of this would ever have happened. But they aren’t, and no one ever listens to my pro-Barcelona urban planning rants anyway.* Continue reading

Cashing the Check of Justice (1)

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this Nation.

So we have come to cash this check. 

–Martin Luther King, Jr. , “I Have a Dream” (1963)

I just got home from nearly three weeks abroad. Waiting for me in the mail: final judgment in my favor on my Superior Court appeal against Bedminister Municipal Court. But the case is not over. Continue reading

DUI, Refusal, and Procedural Rights

Here’s a question (or two, or a bunch) for the lawyers out there, particularly anyone specializing in traffic law, especially DUI in New Jersey, assuming that any of them read Policy of Truth:

I don’t drink, much less drink and drive, so I’m sitting here in a calm moment with no legal issue at stake trying to understand New Jersey law (NJSA 39:4-50.4a) on DUI testing and prosecution for refusal. It just amazes me how poorly drafted even the simplest and most ubiquitous law turns out to be. Continue reading

Drivin’ and Cryin’: Bumps on the Road to Pot Legalization

I’m all in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana, indeed for the eventual legalization of recreational pot use, but the closer we come to achieving that goal, the greater the number of practical quasi-dilemmas we’ll have to face that we’d never had to consider before. These quasi-dilemmas may not be conclusive considerations against full legalization, but they can’t be minimized, either.

It’s common for advocates of legalization to compare pot with alcohol: if we accept recreational alcohol consumption, why not accept recreational consumption of pot? In many ways (it’s plausibly argued), alcohol is worse than pot. If we overlook the problems with alcohol and allow recreational alcohol consumption anyway, it seems inconsistent to fixate on the similar problems with pot in order to ban the recreational use of pot. Continue reading

Police Tailgating as Entrapment: A Comment and Query

I live a fair distance from work, so I spend a fair bit of time driving on interstate highways. Because I do, I have a fair opportunity to observe the rather unfair doings of the New Jersey State Police on our interstate highways. This is the kind of behavior I see just about every day:

And this is the kind of behavior I’ve seen more than once (albeit by local police, not by state troopers):

I once saw a Glen Ridge police officer tailgate and then crash into the car he was tailgating, in part because he was lighting a cigarette while doing so. Having crashed into the car in front of him (at a red light), he called in backup, surrounded the victim’s car, then aggressively interrogated her at the scene–presumably for the crime of his having crashed into her. (This despite the fact that liability for rear-end collisions is almost always pinned on the car in the rear.) I wish I’d recorded it, but I didn’t have a cellphone at the time.   Continue reading

Heading Out to the Highway (with David Brooks)

The ethics of driving is a topic dear to my heart, having lost my two closest childhood friends (and the wife of one of those friends, who was also a friend) to traffic accidents, and living as I do in north Jersey, where every day’s commute is a near-death experience. I hate cars, I hate driving, and above all, I hate driving in New Jersey, so I’m always open to anyone who’s willing to trash the way “we” drive, ascribe it to “our” moral failings, and demand that “we” do better. (I hijacked a presentation on the Aristotelian virtue of eubolia at the Felician Ethics Conference this past fall to insist that in the modern world, eubolia is a virtue best exemplified by virtuous drivers.)

This anti-driving (or anti-bad-driving, or anti-ubiquitously-bad-driving) attitude competes with another downer sentiment of mine: I can’t stand David Brooks. Just to be clear: I can’t fucking stand David Brooks.

So I opened up this morning’s New York Times, turned to the Op-Ed page, and faced a bit of a dilemma. Here was David Brooks trashing the way “we” drive, describing Jersey drivers as people who “treat driving as if it were foreplay to genocide,” acknowledging that “driving means making a thousand small decisions” (internalized eubolia, anyone?), and getting a few things right. But like so many so-called dilemmas, this one wasn’t an instance of that fabled entity, the irresolvable ontologically-based moral dilemma, and collapsed before long. Because as per usual, Brooks managed to snatch polemical failure from the jaws of success, re-confirming my hate for everything he writes.   Continue reading

Check Your Suburban Privilege

Perhaps I’m being petty, but I’m convinced that there is a distinctive ethos endemic to the suburban American northeast which might be called the suburban entitlement mentality. (I’m sure it ranges beyond that, but that’s the version I know best. I didn’t encounter it when I lived in the midwest–though I encountered other unsavory things.) I’m not a Kantian, but there are days when I think that some of the essential elements of Kant’s moral philosophy–action from the motive of duty, universalizability–were formulated in (over)reaction to a version of the mentality I have in mind. Continue reading

Guest post: A Passage to Bangladesh, Dhaka Day 1 (by Matt Faherty)

Dhaka Day 1 – Getting Taken for a Ride*

[For background, read this.]

I am currently fighting off severe jet lag so I cannot vouch for the coherence of this piece. As of typing this sentence, it is 6:14 PM and I hope to make it till 10 PM before passing out. I’ll probably settle for 9. There is so much to recount after a mere half a day here that I’m not sure I’m up to the task. Bangladesh is big, bizarre, filthy, and completely overwhelming. I’ll start with my arrival, which, like the rest of my trip up until that point, went pretty horribly.

Welcome to Dhaka!

I got off the crowded plane after listening to a rather solid line up of pop hits and entered Dhaka International Airport. By American standards, it was a shit-hole barely the size of my local Westchester airport but far dirtier (and filled with mosquitos, for some reason). I had no trouble buying a visa with my Irish passport and got through customs within 20 minutes. After messing about with the rinky-dink tourist office and getting my checked bag, I had to figure out how to get to my hotel.

The most obvious way was to go to the taxi stands in the airport–little plastic stalls filled with obnoxious men who yell “taxi!” at the top of their lungs to every person who walks by. This option had “scam” written all over; airport taxis always over charge. I asked how much it would cost to take me to my hotel: $14. Forget it. I searched for alternative means of transportation.

But what were my options? I saw Bangladesh’s equivalent to took-tooks outside (they had metal cages on the back). In retrospect, I should have taken my chances with one of them. Instead I went to the help desk and asked if the airport ran any shuttles or busses to the city center. It did not, but the attendant helpfully offered to help me get a taxi. I assumed he meant a taxi outside, so I took him up on his offer. No, he meant the scammers. Weakened from two days in transit and not feeling the desire to continue to bum around a Bangladeshi airport, I paid the outrageous fee.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the friendly attendant then turned to me and unironically asked me for a tip. He’d walked about 100 feet with me and showed me information I already knew. And let’s not forget that this guy works at an info desk at an airport and therefore it is his entire job to help people. For the same reasons I listed above, I tossed him the equivalent of $1.50.

I ended up waiting for an upsetting 30 minutes during which time I reflected upon the long series of failures that had constituted the past two days. Finally, my car arrived. It wasn’t a taxi: it was just some random guy’s car. I had been scammed by an Uber knock off.

That’s when the depressing portion of my time in Dhaka ended and the terrifying part began. I’ve experienced crazy driving before. I’ve experienced Italian drivers who fling themselves recklessly up narrow cliffside roads. I’ve experienced Turkish drivers who drive 90 mph in their tiny sub-European cars on the pseudo-highways of Turkey. I’ve experienced Chinese drivers for whom the rules of lane passing do not apply. But none of that could have prepared me for a drive in Dhaka.

To be fair, at this point I’m not entirely sure if all Bangladeshi drivers are mad men, or if my driver was an ex-Formula 1 get-away driver. What I do know is that this guy drove like a highly competent lunatic. I cannot even begin to describe the maneuvers he pulled off. If there was the slightest gap in the legions of buses, cars, took tooks (motorized rickshaws), and bikes in front of us, he would find it. And he wouldn’t just find it, he would power through it with reckless abandon, often with only inches to spare on either side of the vehicle. If no gap was present, he would slam on the gas anyway and just sort of hope a gap would appear by the time he reached the solid row of vehicles in front of us.

Forget about using the shoulder; my driver passed cars in their own lanes. He furiously honked at any cars with the gall who failed to part like the Red Sea before his divine driving skills. He nearly hit at least four pedestrians while trying to get around a truck at an intersection. Red lights did not apply to him. He drove like I had told him that I had twenty minutes to live and I really needed to get to my hotel to recover my multi-million dollar lottery ticket.  Alternatively, he drove like a Terminator-esque time traveler who had already been though this same exact driving route thousands of time sand already knew which way to turn and when to slow down at every juncture.

He was cool as ice for the duration–a lanky Indian guy with a mustache, but when he drove, Ryan Gosling-like calm seemed to come over him. Even as he brought us to the edge of death for the ninth time, he remained placid and focused.

After twenty minutes of the most exilaratingly terrifying rides of my life, I arrived at my hotel. I was so dazed that I forgot to think about the tip, and barely noticed when he (rather rudely) asked me for one. I gave him an absurdly large amount, equivalent to well over $5.

Dhaka the Dickensian

Now onto Dhaka itself. It’s a bit difficult to write a general description of the city after spending just four hours exploring a small part of it. My general description will surely grow over the next few days and I’ll try to write a capstone summary at some point.

dhaka-population-2013.jpg (468×267)

Dhaka is dirty. It is filthier than any city I’ve ever been in.** I guess I’ve been to cities in China, Southeast Asia, and Turkey which are as dirty in part, but I’ve not encountered any city anywhere that is so consistently rancid. The trash is ubiquitous. I have no idea why. Do people litter constantly? Is there no garbage service at all? The huge, steaming piles of garbage suggest that there might be a garbage service of some kind. It just doesn’t ever seem to work.

Many streets have little streams of brown sludgy water running right next to the side walk. I took a whiff (several, actually). Judging from the smell, it probably isn’t sewage most of the time, but it most definitely is sewage some of the time. Only in Dhaka have I been merrily walking down the street, to gag and be laid low by the unbearable stench that surrounds me. At one stretch of market stalls as long as the road itself, the merchants were lined up on the side of the street, in front of a ten foot-wide stream of sewer sludge. The merchants themselves stood on a foot-wide path between their stalls and the sludge. Talk about nerve-wracking work conditions: one false move, and you’re literally in the shit.

The city itself looks a lot like the non-central Chinese cities that tourists tend to avoid—except (literally) shittier. The buildings are mostly concrete blocks in various states of disrepair. Almost nothing is painted. The few skyscrapers look dirty and old despite being built in the last decade or two. The streets are all wide to allow for six or eight lanes traffic. Insane traffic constantly clogs these arteries and leaves pedestrians to sprint for cover at a moment’s notice.

A general smell of filth pervades the whole city, which in conjunction with pollution, and omnipresence of the scorching sun, creates an atmosphere of constant physical discomfort. I’m hoping to get used to it. Soon.

The natives: thick description a la Faherty

And then there’s the people–what I’ve been most interested to explore in my time here. It’s clear to me that the scam artists at the airport were anomalies. Bangladeshis are nice. No, extremely nice. While walking around I came up with the analogy: Bangladeshis are to friendliness what the Japanese are to politeness. They epitomize it.

Having spent several months in China, I’m used to the staring, the curiosity, the questions, and so on–but Bangladesh brings it all to a new level. I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly what’s different, but it definitely different, and more intense.

Everyone stares.*** Every person I walk past on the street. Every vendor. Every police officer. Especially every child. If I fall within a Bangladeshi’s line of sight, they stare. Taking out my camera acts as an additional lighting rod; doing itcauses people to stop whatever they’re doing (walking, cooking, watching the road while driving) to see what I’m doing. The whole thing is pretty stressful, but fortunately all of the Bangladeshi’s are just absurdly nice (see above).

Occasionally someone will walk over, making unblinking eye contact with a giant smile on his face, and say something like, “Hello! What is your homeland?” (It’s always a guy, never a girl.) I smile back and tell him “America.” His eyes light up, his smile gets bigger and he usually tries to shake my hand. But they don’t quite follow the same handshake rules as we do. Their handshakes are always pretty limp-wristed and they hang on for a long time, usually at least thirty seconds.

One of the most surreal experiences in my life: I walked through a horribly filthy public park here in Dhaka, complete with even worse trash than what I encountered on the city streets, and punctuated by a brown, sludgy lake. The park was filled to the brim with young Bangladeshi boys, probably ranging from five to eighteen years old. As I’ve mentioned, young people are especially curious here, and these boys–unlike the ones I encountered on the street–were just playing cricket and soccer, and so, were undistracted by workaday concerns. As I slowly worked my way through the park, the mass of heads turning to stare at me grew ever larger. Eventually, people started following me. It began with a five-ish year old who stood a foot away from me while I was taking a picture and just looked me over. Then it turned into small groups of high school-aged kids who would walk ten or so feet behind me whispering to each other. Eventually one of them would work up the courage to do the hello-handshake thing. One group of soccer players stopped their game so I could take a picture of the whole squad.

All of it was intimidating, but also immensely friendly and harmless. The only time I felt some degree of animosity was when a ten year old on the street called out, “Hey, white!” and made a kissing noise. I’m not sure what to make of that.****

Must-see attractions and advice for tourists

I visited the National Mosque of Bangladesh, the tenth largest mosque in the world. It was kind of a let-down. They clearly went for a “quantity over quality” approach with it, because while it’s massive, it’s all desperately plain. The mosque takes up almost an entire square between major city blocks and features a football field sized courtyard for prayer time. It’s muddy yellow. There are few elaborate Islamic art patterns on the wall, but it’s probably the dirtiest mosque I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to a bunch). The filth didn’t stop dozens of people from falling asleep on the floor.

Baitul_Mukarram_(Arabic,_بيت_المكرّم;_Bengali,_বায়তুল_মুকাররম;_The_Holy_House).jpg (780×465)

The only other thing of note about the mosque is that it’s the first mosque I’ve been to without a designated location at the entrance to leave your shoes while you enter. Instead, everyone carries their shoes around, and even puts them on the ground while they rest, which kind of defeats the purpose. I’m assuming this is done to avoid theft?

Wikitravel warns travelers to avoid political and labor gatherings because they attract attention. I now understand that sentiment. I passed by a gathering of about a hundred individuals holding communist flags (red with a hammer and sickle). I don’t know what the rally was for, but when I tried to take a picture from across the street, heads turned. When I took a second picture, a quarter of the rally started staring uncomfortably at me, and started to shout. I don’t know what they said, but they didn’t seem happy. I walked away.

Editor’s note: Much more to come from Dhaka and Calcutta, including Matt’s reactions to the recent violence rocking his newly-beloved city. Try not to get hacked to death, Matt. Or hacked at all.

*Editor’s note: Matt’s reactions to Dhaka are usefully compared with David Riesbeck’s earlier discussion here at PoT on cultural difference and offense-giving in Greece.

**Editor’s note: I wonder how Dhaka stacks up against Managua? I’d appreciate comments from readers who’ve been to both cities.

***Editor’s note: Matt is blonde-haired and blue green eyed. I’ll see if I can post a photo at some point. (Done: see above.)

****Editor’s note: Matt is blonde-haired, blue green eyed, and by some many all available accounts, quite good looking.

James Stacey Taylor on local government

I highly recommend reading this blog post by James Stacey Taylor at BHL on local government. I couldn’t agree more with Taylor’s central claim–that local government matters, and that anyone interested in politics should spend some time observing or participating in it. But I think I disagree with the specifically libertarian inference Taylor draws from the experience he describes with the Hopewell, New Jersey Planning Board. (I spent a decade living in the same general vicinity as Taylor, and like him, used to teach at The College of New Jersey. So I have a first-hand sense of the issue he’s describing.)

Taylor seems to infer from his experience that we ought to have less local government rather than more. I agree that when it comes to Planning Boards, we ought to limit their powers. I also agree that local government ought to be more evidence-based and transparent. But I don’t think the general lesson–less government–is the right one.

For one thing, I don’t think Taylor’s experience is really unique to local government. You find the same sort of behavior everywhere, including in the “organic, voluntary” activity he favors. Just imagine that the patch of land he describes was handed over to private developers without the intermediate step of having to pass through the Planning Board. Is there any reason to believe that developers wouldn’t have wanted to create a mini-city in the middle of what is now an open field? If there’s money to be made, they’d do it, and as for unintended consequences, if they could shift the costs to someone else, they’d ignore them and insist on the privacy of their non-existent data.

You might say, “They shouldn’t be allowed to shift the costs to someone else.” Correct. But that requires extensive government enforcement of laws that demand the internalization of externalities. Put it this way: would Taylor advocate the outright abolition of local Planning Boards? Having spent a fair bit of time observing them (in New Jersey), I would say “no.” They need to be put in their place, not abolished.

Second, I wonder whether Taylor would agree that in many cases, the unregulated parts of our lives could use more regulation. Regional differences may be at work here. Taylor lives in west-central New Jersey. I live in northeastern New Jersey. Patterns of life are quite different in the two places. But consider aspects of life that a northeastern Jerseyite would want regulated more tightly by government.

My first pick is traffic. I’ll just assert the proposition: we need more, and stricter, enforcement of traffic laws. We need to force people to slow down, to get off their cell phones while driving, to yield at yield signs, to stop at stop signs (or lights),  to use their turn signals before they turn, to pay tolls, and not to honk their horns for purely expressive reasons.

Second pick: noise ordinances. Most towns have noise ordinances on the books, but many towns treat their noise ordinance as though enforcement of it were a frill or luxury. I see violation of a noise ordinance as a rights-violation fully on par with battery. Just imagine living next to a construction site and being woken up every damn morning by construction activity that’s begun before it’s legally permitted to begin (or that continues well into the night). Or imagine living next to a golf course where the landscapers habitually start work–with mowers and blowers–at 4:45 am, three hours before it’s legally allowed. You call the police and they act as though they have better things to do than enforce the law. My inference: we need more government.

Incidentally, it’s an interesting thing how one is to enforce noise-related violations within a private contract. Right now, my upstairs neighbors are making enough noise to wake the dead. That violates the lease agreement we’ve all signed with the landlord, which involves a promise to one another to keep the noise down. But how do I get that “legally enforceable” promise legally enforced? I could go to the landlord. He’ll ignore me. I don’t have standing to take my neighbors to landlord-tenant court. I’m not a landlord. But the lease’s being violated is a clear-cut rights violation. It’s a breach of contract. What’s happens to rights violations like this? The answer is that in the name of less intrusive government, they go unenforced. But the result is a diminution in some people’s quality of life. (Lovers of quiet are, to paraphrase Ayn Rand, America’s most persecuted minority.)

Third, idiosyncratic example: parking. For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in apartments where parking was tight. In one case, I rented a garage on the rental property so as to guarantee having a spot. In other cases, there was assigned parking. What do you do if someone parks his car in front of your garage (ignoring the NO PARKING sign as though it wasn’t there), or parks in your assigned spot (and you’re not willing to park in someone else’s)? If you complain to your landlord, you’ll be told, reasonably enough, to call the police. But if you call the police, the bizarre answer you will get in New Jersey is: “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it. You’re on private property.”

Pause on the absurdity of that answer. If someone were breaking in to your apartment, and you called 911, it would make no sense for the police to say, “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it. The break-in is taking place on private property.” But I’ve repeatedly had the “sorry, can’t help you” experience when I’ve called the police re parking. As it happens, the police’s “sorry, can’t help you” response involves a misstatement of state law (I’ll spare you the details*), but the fact remains that as written, state law is simply too weak on this issue. It puts too much of the onus on the victim of the rights violation to rectify the situation and not enough on the person who’s blocking one’s garage or parked in one’s assigned spot. Again, my inference: we need more, activist government in the name of rights enforcement.

I would defy any anarcho-capitalist to produce the non-governmental version of the resolution of disputes of the preceding variety. I had the opportunity to see what such attempts at “resolution” might look like when I spent time in the West Bank city of Bethany, which effectively lacks a government. (Officially, it is in Area B under the Oslo Accords, under joint Israel-Palestinian control. But de facto, it lacks a government.) Bethany is practically a controlled science experiment in anarchy. Suffice it to say that things really didn’t turn out the way anarcho-capitalists claim they will. Bethany is a case of “the Wild West” in the Near East–or maybe the Wild West in the Wild West Bank. (Incidentally, I don’t mean to be saddling Taylor with anarcho-capitalism. I have no idea what his views are on that. I just mean to be saddling anarcho-capitalists with Bethany. And yes, it’s that Bethany, the one where Jesus was buried. Burying him was one of the things that the Romans “did for us,” by the way. I’m not sure Jesus would have been buried under anarcho-capitalism.**)

Give me long enough, and I could extend this list pretty much indefinitely.

Anyway, I’m grateful to Taylor for a thoughtful post which broaches some interesting and important issues.

*Postscript, added later: The link in the text goes to the section of New Jersey’s state code governing private property and non-consensual towing. But here is the written response I got from the local Police Department after complaining about their refusal to tow vehicles that were blocking my egress from my garage.

The area of the garages at [name of apartment complex] are private property. The owners of the property basically give authority to building management to maintain the lands. If management feels a vehicle is parked on their property (that does not belong or parked improperly) [they] will call the Police. The Police will issue a summons (management will be called to court as a witness/complainant). The Police cannot tow the vehicle, because it is on private property. Management actually calls for the tow truck. The main road of the complex is considered quasi-public. In this area, the Police can summons and tow.

It’s worth wondering how any of this convoluted legal analysis is supposed to help someone whose garage is blocked but needs to get the car out of it to go to work. I ended up taking a taxi to and from work at a cost of over $100. That happened several times before I made my complaint to the police. In fairness to my local PD, they’ve been pretty responsive about other things, including my insistence that they paint a stop line at an ambiguous intersection so that it was crystal-clear where to stop. From an email to me from the local police chief: “Stop line placed on Watchung roadway. —Chief Goul.” Thanks, Chief.

**Postscript, added later: On second thought, the last two sentences before the asterisk are ridiculous assertions which I’ll leave in the text but now disown. Tradition has it that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimethea, who wasn’t in any relevant sense a Roman. I only wrote what I wrote as an excuse to throw Monty Python into the mix, but it’s totally inaccurate and potentially offensive–to Christians, anarcho-capitalists, and above all Christian anarcho-capitalists–so I hereby repent and take it back. I concede: Jesus might well have been buried (and for that matter, crucified) under anarcho-capitalism.