Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Marketplace aired an interview between host Kai Ryssdal and candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States Dr. Ben Carson. Public radio host and would-be Republican politician - well, you can guess how it turned out. But there was one sentence in it all that stood out for me. Dr. Carson noted:

[...O]ne of the bugaboos that has kept us from reducing government in the past is sacred cows.
But he never actually mentioned what any of those cows were, other than the size of the Federal budget as a whole. (And, if you read the transcript, it wasn't because Kai Ryssdal didn't try to pry it out of him.) In part, I think because it's simply conservative orthodoxy that "government is bloated." That came across when Dr. Carson said, "You cannot convince me that there isn't any department that is completely 100 percent efficient and you can't find fat." To be sure, of course I could find fat in every government department - so long as I'm allowed to define "fat" as "anything that doesn't directly contribute to getting the job at hand done." I think that people would be amazed at what fits that definition.

In politics, one of the first rules of running for Butcher In Chief is that you never telegraph whose sacred cows you're planning to come after. This prevents those people from having a clear reason to mobilize against you. And perhaps the second rule of running for Butcher In Chief is that always work to convince people that someone else has a sacred cow you're bound and determined to serve up for dinner. Suffering is always better when someone else has to do it. And since things like this are always better in threes, maybe the third rule of running for Butcher In Chief is that once you've picked your favored constituency anything that's important to The Other Side is, in fact, a sacred cow that's only still alive due to the perfidy of the Butchers In Chief that came before, and their lack of "political courage." This time, the suffering the other side has coming will actually happen. There is an argument, I think, for political campaigns framing things this way as a matter of course.

But the country isn't in the state that it's in because people are unwilling to swing a cleaver. The country is in the state that it's in because every cow worth slaughtering has a cadre of voters protecting it. The sacred cows of American politics are the important interests of the American voters - or at least those things that they're willing to put people into office (or remove them from it) for. As the saying goes, for any given group of people in the United States, no matter how committed they are to small government - there's government spending, and then there's THEIR government spending. There is a reason why every state in the nation has defense contractors in it. And it's not to spread them out in case of an attack.

It's become a common political trope to pretend that this particular political reality doesn't exist - or that this time, the will to overcome it will suddenly emerge. It's a trope that exists because it serves people's interests. Just like the tropes that emerged in the comments after the interview: Kai Ryssdal as no-holds-barred journalist and Dr. Carson as honest Conservative picked on by an openly Liberal journalist, suit the interests of various constituencies that read and/or listened to the interview. But it's an expensive trope to maintain. Politicians have been talking about slaughtering other people's sacred cows ever since the thinly veiled criticism of Hinduism entered the political lexicon. The reasons they haven't done so - the political reality that says that in a representative government, large and/or well-connected groups are able to protect their interests and entitlements - haven't changed. And that's why the cows still contentedly wander the pasture.

One day, the butcher's cleaver will find some or all of them. The current path that we're on is unsustainable. But it's not going to be an easy task.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Counting Crow

How to calculate the potential damage caused by longer prison sentences versus the risk of more street crime is a thorny moral and policy question. Those more inclined to weight the second over the first may well be wrong, especially in these relatively safe times. But does that make them complicit in a Jim Crow system—that is, racists?
Kay Hymowitz "The Breakdown of the Black Family"
This, to me, is one of the problems with our continued use of the term "Jim Crow" to talk about racial politics and the racial impacts of policy. The original Jim Crow was an intentional program to marginalize and disenfranchise (among other things) Black people in America. And when we talk about things today as being a continuation of Jim Crow or "the new" Jim Crow, that assumption of intent comes with it, even when it may not be there - and that allows writers like Hymowitz to attack the idea by looking for evidence that the proponents of today's policies are not the overt, dedicated racists that put the original policies in place.

And that conversation often pulls us away from the original point of questioning a lot of policies in the first place - is the policy doing what we want it to do? Hymowitz notes the "incapacitation effect" of keeping people in jail - if people are in jail, they can't commit more crimes (against people who aren't themselves in jail, anyway). But is simply keeping all criminals in jail longer the only way to accomplish this? If two-thirds of violent criminals who are re-arrested are pulled in for non-violent offenses, is there a way that we can keep the other third locked away, while mitigating the damage to the persons, families and communities of the remainder?

Speaking of things in terms of "Jim Crow" doesn't help us answer that question. And neither do the knee-jerk, defensive responses to the reference.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


One thing that I have noticed when I talk politics with people is that while they will talk between each other about differing political philosophies, they dislike talking to others about them. So my conservative acquaintances will explain at length to one another about how liberalism works and what it intends, but will not ask any liberals, and are typically hostile to being told that their echo-chambered understanding are incorrect. And, on the other side of the equation, my liberal acquaintances do the same.At best, each group will point to specific examples of the other that they believe typify the worst traits of the other group, and hold them up as the representative as everyone who holds to a particular doctrine.

Of course, this trait isn't limited to just the people that I talk politics with. Rather, it's become a common habit across the political spectrum, especially for those people who have mass media platforms. Thus the various parties become caricatures of themselves to people outside of them, which inhibits conversation and understanding. The results are predictable.

Friday, October 2, 2015


If this year is anything like 2013 (and it may or it may not be), if no firearms are discharged in the United States, around 13 people around the nation will die from homicide today. This would put the United States on a par with nations like Canada, Tajikistan, Finland or Belgium in terms of overall homicide rate per 100,000 people. If. If, as I said, you assume that the homicide rate in the United States today is pretty much the same as it was in 2013, and if you assume that none of the approximately 30 people who would die to firearms homicides would be added to their number. These are both pretty big ifs.

There was a shooting on a college campus in Oregon yesterday, and it's spun up the mostly pointless shouting match that we in the United States like to have about public access to firearms. Watching these endless cycles of blame and recrimination, though, you notice what isn't talked about. Taking the homicide rate for 2013 and spreading it evenly throughout the year, about 44 people died every day. 31 from firearms homicides and 13 from other causes. It's the highest in the First World, and very nearly beats the whole of the former Second World, although it pales in comparison to much of the Third World. While people say that we shouldn't compare ourselves to the Third World, maybe there are useful lessons to be drawn from such, or at least those nations that are close to the United States in homicide rates. Because maybe if we understand the roots of our propensity to violence, we can really do something to curb it, outside of shouting at each other.

School shootings tend to wind up the American Left for the simple reason that they disrupt the standard pattern of violence as something that happens mainly in benighted urban areas. If you presume that violence tends to concentrate in areas of poverty - and the numbers bear this out - it stands to reason that you'll see a lot of it in places were poverty is concentrated. But not all of it, and it is when violence breaks out into areas considered "safe" (as in "not-poor") that it makes national headlines and President Obama starts making speeches about how we're overdue to have done something to solve the problem.

The reason the shouting match over access to firearms never goes anywhere is that it is, to a degree, circular - the American Left tends to argue that access to firearms is the problem and the American Right tends to argue that access to firearms is the solution, and in the middle of the two stands both the public and the United States Constitution, which frowns on wholesale restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. The Constitution is not inviolate, but changing it is a slow, slow process, and one that there is little political incentive to undertake. And as the two sides deny that the other means well, the conflict has become less about policy and is, frankly, personal, with the two camps each accusing the other of being wedded to a dangerous society.

But still we'd rather butt heads when multiple murder comes to a reasonably affluent area of the United States than concern ourselves with fixing the constant levels of poverty that drives the constant level of homicide that has become background noise.

And each time this happens, I'm going to bring this up. Each time this happens, I'm going to say that we can actually do something about it but we're going to have to change our laws. And this is not something I can do by myself. I've got to have a Congress and I've got to have state legislatures and governors who are willing to work with me on this. I hope and pray that I don't have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But based on my experience as president, I can't guarantee that, and that's terrible to say, and it can change.
President Barack Obama
But why isn't the steady drumbeat of more than two dozen firearms homicides worth bringing up? (This, I suspect, is part of the reason why there is some discontent with the Obama Administration in Black America - people are dying on a daily basis, yet it's only when something exceptionally mediagenic happens that the President involves himself.) The political focus on reforming the United States' firearms laws makes for good political grandstanding, but it's also beside the point. Gun culture isn't really our problem. Poverty culture and the violence culture that it breeds drives a constant level of violence and death that consistently surpasses the occasional mass shooting. If hard cases make for bad law, perhaps it's just as true that scary headlines make for bad policy discussions. If that's the case we need to move past the headlines.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Given long enough, it will become impossible to find any trace of my existence. Only question is how long is "long enough?" But, given its inevitability, does it matter? In the grand scheme of things, the difference between the day after tomorrow and One Million A.D. is trivial to the point of being completely irrelevant. Either way, things will go on without me. And I'm okay with that. Partly because not being okay with it is not going to change it. While the Universe may end when I die, that's really merely a side effect of the fact that "I think, therefore everything is." I have ended countless times, with every death of a person who knew me, and yet, here I am. It will be the same when I die. But I'm also okay with oblivion because, well, what is wrong with oblivion?

We are, I think, taught to think of ourselves as valuable and, to an extent, need that feeling of being valuable. And the understanding that, once we are gone, everything else is capable of going on without us as if we never existed works against that. And being able to imagine, and thus create models of things that never were, we conceive of a world, of an existence, in which we are important - in which we matter in a broader context than just ourselves. But if our importance, our necessity, our mattering, begins and ends with us, and everything else is functionally the same, what does external validation offer us?

If "I think, therefore everything is," from my own point of view, I am the most important being in the Universe. After all, without me, it wouldn't be here. And that is enough, even though it is only true for myself.