Monday, February 28, 2011

Shifting Sands

Today the message was that courts would interpret the law in cases like the Johns' according to secular and not religious values.
Eunice and Owen Johns

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oh, Don't Mind Them

Ezra Klein makes an interesting point while talking about a political science book from a few years back:

In “Stealth Democracy,” political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse amass a lot of public-opinion data showing two things: First, as Jon Bernstein says above, most people do not pay much attention to American politics, and they do not want to pay much attention to American politics. But that preference leads to another preference: In order for most Americans to tune out of politics and not get ripped off due to their inattention, politicians need to be acting in an honorable, "non-self-interested" way.
Now, I've talked about this before, falling back on the analogy of a Good Shepherd, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time hear re-hashing it.

Instead, I'm going to ask the question - Do we expect this sort of behavior from anyone else? I mean, if you're completely (and perhaps actively) disinterested in the way an auto mechanic goes about things, wouldn't you expect to be cheated? There must be at least a billion web sites devoted to letting people rate and review businesses and service providers, with the express purpose of giving one a place to go for information so they're not conned. It seems to me that if you're going to take the time to count your change at McDonald's, because you're worried that the cashier might not be above pocketing a dollar or two, similar oversight of one's legislators is in order.
[Most Americans] worry -- rightly -- that their disinterest leaves them holding the bag for the favors that powerful interests are getting.
Given that this is the case, and that people don't expect other professions to treat them any differently, why doesn't this simple fact become the impetus for greater interest in the political process? This idea, that people want a government that will look out for them without any sort of reward/punishment structure set up to enforce it, just seems bizarre. But I haven't yet read "Stealth Democracy" myself, so perhaps they explain how this works there. (Although I will admit that part of me is afraid to find out what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse will say about it.)

But it seems to me, on the surface, that people have been willing to abdicate control over the processes of government in favor of a vague hope that the United States is special enough that this won't bite them in the rear end. It seems a fool's wager.

Edited: Hmm... It seems that I'm already starting to recycle my post titles... I'll have to be more careful about that in the future.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Property Of

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

The [Defense Of Marriage Act] simply makes more explicit the government's obligation to secure the Creator-endowed unalienable rights of the natural family. This obligation precludes government from fabricating other rights that impair them. In this respect, granting homosexuals the right to marry is like granting plantation owners the right to own slaves.
Alan Keyes
I'm afraid to ask on what grounds one compares the right to same-sex marriage with the right to own another human being and force them to perform labor for you. To a degree, I reject Keyes' idea of "Creator-endowed unalienable rights" as a fantasy. (And yes, I realize that this also means I'm thumbing my nose at the Declaration of Independence.) If the Creator wants to endow rights, the Creator needs to show up to defend them. If there is one thing that American history has taught us, it's that rights are only worth the amount of effort and/or pain that people are willing to put into protecting them, and sanctioning people who seek to abrogate them. The "peculiar institution" of slavery existed for so long in the face of Creator-endowed unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness precisely because government chose to create other rights that allowed for it, and the Creator apparently declined to object.

Snarking aside, if we take Keyes at his word, it's helpful to attempt to parse out what "Creator-endowed unalienable rights of the natural family" he might be referring to. I went to the source of the quote, and found that it is immediately preceded by this:
Government doesn't endow people with the ability to procreate the species. The Creator takes care of that. Like all unalienable rights, those associated with the natural family exist in consequence of this endowment. A couple that cannot, by nature, procreate has no claim to those rights. Nor can government grant them a semblance of it without impairing the claims of one or both of the parents biologically implicated in the physical conception of the child.
Note, that by this logic, government cannot countenance the granting of familial rights to ANY couple that cannot procreate. Hence, the infertile should be barred from marriage. Now, I know that it looks like I'm simply indulging in gotchas here, but I really don't think that Keyes has thought his argument through to its logical conclusion - which is that since the government sanctions marriage between heterosexual couples without first taking any steps to ascertain the fertility of said couples, and thus allows infertile couples to marry, the rights of biological parents are, by necessity, impaired, since the infertile cannot, by nature, procreate.

Okay. That doesn't tell us everything that we need to know, but it's a start. So far, the unalienable right of the natural family would appear to be an absolute freedom from competition from any other sort of family structure. This would be in keeping with one of the standard Conservative hobgoblins surrounding same-sex couples - that since being homosexual is so much more rewarding than being heterosexual, some indeterminate number of people who would have otherwise gone on to unhappily marry a member of the opposite sex and have 2.7 children out in the suburbs will instead decide to shack up with someone of the same sex. But this is difficult to tie into some rights of parents being trampled. From where I sit, childbearing couples are just as much the property of the natural family's unalienable rights as everyone else - they're simply more okay with that arrangement.

In other words, it seems difficult to understand how the rights of parents are impaired by the simple mechanism of letting people who cannot be both the biological mother and father of a child have access to the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Keyes' "Creator-endowed unalienable rights of the natural family" don't seem to apply to people at all - they seem to apply to the concept or construct of the nuclear family, which has the right to be the only form of family in existence - a right which is buttressed by an obligation of people to engage in monogamous heterosexual relationships or do without recognition of any sort of familial relationship.

And if we understand that the preservation of traditional marriage is invested solely in the obligation of all people to engage in a certain type of relationship, or none at all, I'd say that Mr. Keyes may have put slavery on the wrong side of the ledger.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Embracing the Controversy

Well, snow has come the Seattle area once again. And since it doesn't snow here all that often, one of the interesting things that happens with every snowfall, especially when it's cold enough that it doesn't melt within several hours (or a couple of days) is that people upset about "Global Warming," come out of the woodwork with online denunciations, that usually go something like this: "If the world were actually warming up, why is it cold enough to snow this year, when we didn't get much snow last year?"

I know that this is going to sound odd, but I'm actually glad that human-triggered climate change is the subject of some controversy. Because if things were to the point that it met the burden of proof for the hard-core skeptics to believe that it was happening, we'd be well and truly screwed.

If We Can Just Remove the "Y"

Online commentators hate on an article that points out how too much hating on people is detrimental to the cause you support.

In other news, miners believe they may have stumbled across the richest vein of Irony in the known universe.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Wonder

To what degree does the level of economic inequality in a society influence the length and severity of recessions? It seems to me that a high concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people would exacerbate the problem, as the capital that would be needed to jump start things is more tightly controlled. Wealth, from my understanding, can be simply defined as being able to survive without working. Therefore, the lower one's overall level of wealth, the more one is in a position of having to carefully ration one's expenditures, or ratchet up the level at which they save. This would seem to play right into the Paradox of Thrift, which says that a high level of saving (or, perhaps more accurately, hoarding) is good for the individual, it's not so good for overall economic activity, which does better with a higher velocity of money. (While most economists seem content to link saving and the making of money available for investment, investment implies risk, and a person who feels that they need to hold on to every dime they have would be unwise to place it in a position where they could potentially lose it.) And even people with quite a bit of money are generally reluctant to invest it in the sorts of high-risk, high-reward activities that fund entrepreneurship and research and development.

I'm not sure if this theory holds water, but it seems worth investigating.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Taking Sides

If a wife-beater flushes his wife's pills down the toilet and gets her pregnant in order to trap her in an abusive relationship, putting obstacles between that woman and her abortion is a form of siding with the abuser.

Of course, in that case, it's probably unintentional siding with the abuser. Not so with this most recent hell that's emerged in South Dakota. As reported by Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones, House Bill 1171---which got out of committee with a 9-to-3 vote---expands the "justifiable homicide" defense to the killing of a person who is going to kill a fetus inside yourself or a family member.
New Research on Coerced Pregnancy Sheds Light on Recent Abortion Debates
This sums up for me, why the debate over abortion never manages to go anywhere. But it's not just the abortion debate. It's about laws, rules and regulations in general. Pretty much any time someone makes a policy proposal that someone else doesn't like, a raft of people come out of the woodwork, with some carefully-crafted but generally extreme case that the rest of us are expected to be so wary of that we can't possibly support the change in good conscience.

But the simple fact of the matter, as I learned a very long time ago, is this: There is no human institution that can ever be completely proofed against the ill intent of malicious people. That doesn't mean that we should throw up our hands, but it does mean that we should be wary of people attempting to cast us on the side of the malicious in their own quest for perfect solutions. There's a reason why hard cases make bad law.

If we're talking about a situation where Jack has flushed Jill's birth control pills, coerced or manipulated her into unprotected sex, gotten her pregnant, murders a doctor who has agreed to abort Jill's baby and then uses the South Dakota law (assuming it passes) as a defense, there have likely been a number of laws, situations and people (likely including Jill) who have sided with Jack along the way. It's unlikely that Jack not being able to claim justifiable homicide would really have created a happy ending to what can only be viewed as a singularly disastrous relationship.

And that's where this particular example of "Why we need to have abortion," falls flat. There are so many other issues that need to be dealt with that it's hard to understand why abortion is really an issue here. If, as the article's Description states: "Coerced pregnancy is surprisingly common [...]" then that's what the rest of us need to be pushing to have dealt with, in South Dakota, and everywhere else. We shouldn't be waiting until women are shopping around for solutions to a baby that's been forced on them to take a side.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Ghetto

I can sum up "Be Nice To Bigots" in a single sentence: "Republicans should alienate a significant portion of their voting base in order to stand up for the truth about President Obama's nationality." Good luck with that, Mr. Saletan.

Say what you will about the Birther movement, and "rampant idiocy" immediately comes to my mind, but this much is true - regardless of how far out in Right field you think they are, they haven't given up their right to vote. And given elective politics pretty much anyplace where the outcomes are not pre-determined, any large voting block of people, especially people who can actually be relied upon to go to the polls (or, depending on the circumstances, stay home in protest) will be courted by SOMEONE. And if that voting block spells the difference between victory and defeat, they will continue to be courted, rather than exiled to the political wilderness.

Given that the President is a Democrat, and the Republicans (more or less by definition) are not, it's not surprising that they'd move to capitalize on the fact that there is a large population of people that don't like the man, and/or his politics/policies, and use their votes to put themselves in power. If that means turning a blind eye to their eccentricities, so be it. The truth can be dealt with once a Permanent Republican Majority has been installed in Washington, D. C. It's a simple fact of politics - no matter how enlightened and populist you are, if you can't win an election, your policies aren't worth anything. So idealism has to wait. In light of this, is unrealistic to the point of being blatantly stupid for Mister Saletan or anyone to expect that the Republicans are going to set out to antagonize such a large segment of their constituency by publicly repudiating their beliefs on national television. Sure, they're not going to risk turning off the rest of the nation by outwardly buying into the Birther worldview. But that's as far as it's going to go. And Birthers themselves understand this, and don't force the issue themselves, for the most part.

Mister Saletan closes his piece with an admonition to John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell. "If they want to be leaders," he says, "it's time to lead." But Legislators are not leaders. Legislators, including Senators, are simply a species of Representative. They can, if they so chose, decide that they should replace their constituent's judgments with their own, but they'd better be wildly successful at delivering the goods that way, or come the next election, they'll be on the bus home, in favor of someone who does a better job of being a "public servant" - i.e. doing what they're told. In fact, I can't think of a single institution where real leadership is invested in a person or persons who are directly answerable to the whims of the lead. It's a safe bet that even World War Two would have gone much differently if Generals Eisenhower or MacArthur had been required to run for re-election multiple times during the conflict. And besides, even the strongest leaders have to know when it's unwise to impose themselves upon a constituency that doesn't share their beliefs (see Mubarak, Hosni). The question of whether or not President Obama was actually born in the United States just isn't important enough to pick a fight over, especially if that fight would endanger the whole of the Republican agenda, and not bring any tangible benefits to the Republican leadership, even if they won.

It's time for the political Left to let go of the idea that President Obama is everybody's President, just as the Right had to come to terms with the fact that President Bush wasn't everybody's President, and it's unlikely that no matter who comes after President Obama, they won't be everybody's President either. And given that whoever leads the opposition in Congress is likely to rely on that fact, it's futile to call upon them to change it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Historical Context

I was somewhat surprised to find, given the general sensitivity around the word "nigger" in the United States, that the History Channel documentary on Sherman's march to the sea uses it without a second thought, and apparently without even bothering with a warning.

This is in contrast with the recent re-editing of "Huckleberry Finn" to remove all traces of the word from the text. Granted, Mark Twain's novel includes many more uses of the word than Sherman's March, but isn't history history?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I, for my part, love Winter. Long nights and plenty of snowfall are my idea of a good time. But I'm in the minority, and here in the Puget Sound area, Winter just isn't all it's cracked up to be. Constant drizzle and dreariness, the bare trees everywhere and when it does snow, the whole place immediately descends into Chaos. While I have all-wheel drive, tire chains and a healthy amount of respect for the physics behind Coefficients of Friction, when real Winter comes to the Seattle area, things get crazy, fast.

So when I saw that I could pre-order Spring on the Internet last year, I decided that I'd take one for the team and plunked down a credit-card number. And lo and behold! They even threw in rush delivery. And they packed a lot of it into a pretty giant box. I'm sure we have enough to share.

Monday, February 7, 2011

THAT Was Intelligent

Husband and Wife get into a spat.

Wife flies home to visit relatives in Pakistan.

Husband, who works for the UK Border Agency, has Wife's name added to the United Kingdom's version of the No Fly List.

Wife effectively exiled from the county, being barred from flights home without explanation.

Investigation finds out what happened.

Husband fired from job for "gross misconduct."

All's well that ends well? Not quite. It took the UK Border Agency three years to find out about the bogus listing, and undo it. If the husband hadn't applied for a promotion (and so gone through a background check for the greater security clearance that went with the new job) his tampering with the list might never have been found out.

This is part of the problem with lists like this being closed to most sorts of appeals from the people are on them. When the wife "tried to return to Britain she was not allowed onto the aircraft. Airline and immigration officials refused to explain to her why." And so a person who isn't a terrorist is basically stranded in another country for three years, and outsiders who say that the West is blindly hostile to those like them have their point made for them. All because the authorities weren't bright enough to realize that it was possible for the list to be intentionally abused by someone with ill intent.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nobody I Know

So I watched a video of several Houston police officers repeatedly kicking a teenager that they were arresting for burglary. I wasn't particularly shocked or surprised by what went on; neither was I surprised by the response of city officials to the release of the footage.

But I also won't be surprised, when, six months from now, we've all pretty much completely forgotten that this ever happened. After all...
I snagged this from PostSecret a while back, and I think that it gets to the real heart of why we have Police brutality, as we called it when I was growing up. Most of us don't care, unless we get a sense from the person who was roughed up that We Could Be Next. Then, we're "outraged."

But it's easy for most of us to ignore any given incident -

  • they were doing something suspicious; I keep my nose clean.
  • it was someone of a different ethnicity; the cops don't treat us that way.
  • that was Somewhere Else; our cops are different.
  • the person who was beaten up did something to deserve it; I would never antagonize a cop.
  • it was a criminal who was beaten up; I'm not a criminal.
And so on, and so on.

Because, basically, Accountability Is Work. It takes effort to hold people accountable. Why am I bothering to spend time being involved in the oversight of police officers when I could be watching the Super Bowl? Yeah, yeah, we all know that all it takes for the triumph of Evil is for enough good people to do nothing. But someone else will pick up the slack. I'd rather freeload.

And Accountability Entails Risk. How many times have we heard that if police officers can't do their jobs in the way they see fit, crime will become worse? And so we decide that the small, impersonal risk of being on the wrong end of a riot baton isn't worth the also small (likely smaller than we think) but very personal risk of a guilty man going free.

Freedom is, at its core, the assumption of Risk. Perhaps this is why "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," those who can't lose anything more have little difficulty with taking even extreme risks. Despite the desperate paranoia of the Right and the Left, our freedoms aren't being taken from us. We're surrendering them in an attempt to excise the risks that come with them. Or, even better, we're surrendering others' freedoms in an attempt to minimize our own risks. (Isn't this the bargain that President Mubarak of Egypt offered us over and over again? Help me retain power, and I'll make sure that my people are never able to put the Muslim Brotherhood in the driver's seat. Isn't it nifty how all of these things tie in together?) But it's debatable to what degree one can ever truly barter only with someone else's currency. But as long as it's nobody we know, we seem to be willing to take that chance.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Staying Out Of It

There is a certain amount of concern in Western circles that the Muslim Brotherhood might rise to power in Egypt, if Mubarak is forced out. This is problematic for the United States, rhetoric-wise. Up until now, our normal way of going about things has been simple - the dictator that's on our side is better than the democracy/republic that isn't, even though we've claimed exactly the opposite. This has been, we all realize, part of the problem.

The only way to solve this problem is to meet it head-on. Everyone realizes that nations, like people, look out for their own interests, even when they begrudge them that fact. Either the United States is going to have to make its actions match its rhetoric, or make the rhetoric match its actions, if we ever want to be free of people who are aggrieved by the disconnect. This isn't to say that everything will suddenly be peachy if we do so.

But the people of Egypt aren't concerned with the interests of the United States, nor should they be. And, despite what we like to say, the people of the United States aren't really concerned with the interests of the people of Egypt. Given that, everyone understands that anything that we attempt to do over there will be for our benefit. And that's likely to create more ill-will than simply staying out of things might. So maybe the best thing we can do for everyone involved is nothing at all.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Competing Interests

The Brookings Institution, likely sharing in the opinion that Washington is unlikely to come up with a way of getting out of the mess that we're in, has come up with a contest to drum up ideas. The 2011 Hamilton Project Policy Innovation Prize, which just opened the other day, is putting $25,000 on the line for people who come up with "The Best Proposals to Create Jobs and Enhance Productivity."

Sounds like a plan. But I suspect that whomever wins, their entry is going to be all about expanding markets for American goods and services in other parts of the world. It pretty much has to be since the two goals of the contest, creating jobs and enhancing productivity, aren't necessarily on the same page. In fact, since gains in productivity tend to lower the need for workers and thus destroy jobs, anything that falls short of the mark would have the potential to increase unemployment. It's only once demand for goods and services increases to the point where increases in productivity are no longer effective in meeting that demand that new jobs are created.

I expect that businesses are going to be very interested in the entries, winning or not, since suggestions on enhancing productivity are always welcomed. But the other half of the coin, creating jobs, is going to be the really interesting part. For the United States to lower its unemployment (and underemployment) rates, and keep them low for an extended period of time, we're going to need to be able to control the demand side of the ledger. (A quick digression: While Supply-Side Economics posits that "supply creates demand," that's predicated on the idea that prices can float to wherever they need to go to entice people to buy the supply in question, even below the cost of production. Since businesses are reluctant to produce goods and services that they cannot recoup their costs on, I suspect that supply-side entries won't do very well.) I don't know if, without doing something to even out the current wealth distribution, that sort of control can be maintained solely within domestic markets. But I have no idea how you'd influence demand in international markets.

In any event, this should be worth following. It will be interesting to see what people come up with.