Friday, September 23, 2011

Calling a Bowl a Spade‏

"Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: On borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem." President Barack Obama.
Okay, then, Mr. President. Given that at least 95%+ of the American population is neither Israeli of Palestinian, why the fuck are WE involved in this, then? Why is it that the Israelis can pretty much always request the United States to insert itself into a process of solving a problem that we didn’t create (not to self – NEVER give something to a Briton and say “divide this equitably, please”) and you yourself seem to be saying is none of our bloody business, while the Palestinians should be barred from seeking help and recognition from abroad. Mr. President, most of the Arab and Moslem worlds already regard us as having sided with the Israelis; even I don’t believe that we’re the impartial third party that we claim to be, and that’s without yahoos like Texas Governor Rick Perry and his “let’s start another damned crusade” bullshit of “As a Christian I have a clear directive to support Israel.”

Look, sir. I get that we have interests in the region, and that we really don’t give a flying fuck about the “Arab Street” as long as their governments continue to keep the oil pumping and look the other way when be blow their citizens away for being feloniously scary. I get that we regard Israel as an important enough ally that we’re willing to overlook any hinky crap that they might be up to. We expect the same of our own allies. I'm not a naïf. I don’t live under a rock. Apparently dysfunctional as it is, this is the way that international diplomacy works. But must we pretend so aggressively that we’re something we aren’t? What’s wrong with treating this whole situation with a wink and a nod? Why insist time and time again – with a straight face, no less – that we’re neutral and then continue to do things that prove that we aren’t?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lead a Horse to Water

"Bad leadership equals bad outcomes."

Okay then. I'll accept that for a moment. But it seems to me that it leads to this corollary...

"The sole measure of a leader's competence is their ability to consistently create good outcomes."

Anybody want to be a leader? Anybody? Anybody? (Bueller...?) After all, if you do it correctly, everything will be okay, regardless of the other factors in play. Right?

My point isn't be a cheerleader for President Obama. I'm not impressed, either.

But if we read facile statements like "Bad leadership equals bad outcomes," and then all nod our heads in agreement, we buy into the single most corrosive aspect of the Cult of Leadership - that all we need is the right leader, and everything will be okay - that there is no problem in the world that proper leadership wouldn't have forestalled. But all of the leadership in the world doesn't un-break something if it turns out that it's fundamentally broken.

It doesn't take a degree in finance to realize that we'd set a baseline for our economy that included borrowing a certain amount of the funds that we were spending, and that we couldn't sustain that indefinitely. And the longer you let it go a) the harder it becomes to sustain, b) the more significant the hit when you decide to stop sustaining it or c) the bigger the miracle you need to make it go away without feeling any pain.

Sometimes, all good leadership is capable of is making the best of a bad outcome.

Could the President have done something differently that would have fixed the situation and have been considered worth the cost? Maybe - but certainly not with an Executive Order. This idea that if he'd only have come up with the perfect solution that Democrats and Republicans in Congress would have seen the light and passed it during a chorus of Kumbaya strikes me as suspect, at best.

Yes, the buck stops at the President's desk. But we shouldn't regard that as an invitation to pass it ourselves. It's said that "Nothing is impossible to the person that doesn't have to do it themselves." So, if it's so easy, maybe we should be putting our heads together, rather than waiting for someone else to rescue us.

Because if bad leadership equals bad outcomes, so does willfully following what we have already identified as bad leadership, even if we seek absolution in so doing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Quick on the Trigger

I think that Matthew Yglesias is too quick to take umbrage at a perceived slight against the masses and jumps back into the realm of "the Public is always to be above Criticism," perhaps because of Brooks' use of the word "sins" which connotes intentional wrongdoing.

Perhaps a better wording of Brooks' closing could be thus: "Over the past decades, Americans have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their inattention to politics, ignorance of the issues, wishful-thinking-driven decision-making and just plain bad luck. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t."

And I think that Brooks has a point here. If you buy a home because prices are going up, up, up, and you don't want to miss the gravy train and your sister-in-law some said that guy who knows a guy who's related to this woman who slept with her cousin told her that "real estate never loses value," you're taking a risk, especially if you don't set out to understand what's actually going on. As far back as 2007, it was clear that home prices were rising so fast, relative to wages that it couldn't go on forever, or even much longer. (I'm not going to claim I saw a crash coming, however. I figured it would simply plateau.)

The job of government isn't to make everything turn out okay, regardless of our own actions (I suspect I'm starting to sound like Ron Paul here). It can't be, because if we consistently covered each other all the time, we'd all go broke. I understand why Mr. Yglesias is upset, but I think his focus on the word "sins" is a bit too strong.

Does it Matter?

The common Christian idea that to not believe in a deity is to believe that there is nothing in the universe greater than oneself always struck me as strange.

The idea that the Universe is structured God > People > Everything Else seems nonsensical to me.

After all, had I to dropped dead in the middle of typing this, eight minutes from then, would anything have noticed? But - were the Sun to have gone out during that time, after about eight minutes, I'd have been very (and eventually fatally) put out. So I'm pretty sure that Sun > Me is true. Just like Earth > Me, Trees > Me and Viruses > Me are true. So assuming that a deity has the top spot, I'm nowhere near second place, and so the absence of that deity does not put me into first.

And in a very real way, that makes me irrelevant. In fact, most of us are irrelevant. The Universe does not miss us when we become absent, and neither do most of our fellow humans. But we don't like that; and it makes sense why. Chapter 3 of The Origin of Species is "Struggle for Existence." When Darwin explains this term he tells that he uses it to encompass three different scenarios - the Struggle for Existence within a species, the Struggle for Existence between species and the Struggle for Existence against the environment. All of these would be short-circuited by the failure of individuals to fight to survive, and a general feeling that it doesn't make any difference tends to short-circuit the will to fight to survive. Therefore, it is possible to make the case that our own understanding of our importance in the grand scheme of things is programmed into us by Nature.

And so we create all sorts of mechanisms, designed to tell us that we're important. The idea that God loves us. The idea that all people are equals. The idea that how we behave during life always matters, and there will be repercussions even after we die.

But everywhere we look we are bombarded by indications that, actually, we aren't all that important. As individuals or even large groups, most of us wouldn't be missed, except by those people who know us reasonably well. From 2002 to 2008, how many people were murdered in the United States? Pick a round number. Would you have any clue if you didn't have Google at your fingertips? The answer is a little over 100,000 people. Can you put your finger on what difference it may have made? How the world is any different? We're still here as a nation, let alone a species, and still kicking butts and taking names. Can articulate one thing that we're doing to prevent these deaths? Or perhaps, can you articulate one thing that you're doing?

And I think that this is the source of the uproar over Wolf Blitzer's question to Ron Paul in the recent debate, and the crowd's reaction to it. Where some one may or may not have said "Let him die," what many people really heard was, "He doesn't matter." And even though we often seem to behave as though that were true, we don't normally profess it. And many of us become profoundly uncomfortable when we feel that others do. And I think this is because many of us fear that it is, actually, true.

Look at the abortion debate. Really, it's an argument over who matters more - pregnant women or the fetuses (feti?) they carry. When I was in a parochial school growing up I was taught that the fetus was who mattered. If necessary, the mother was expected to go to her death to preserve it, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. New life trumped those already born. On the pro-choice side, a different argument is made - that the life, health and autonomy of the woman are important and should have weight, rather than simply being cast aside in favor of a conceptualization of women as little more than baby delivery vehicles - unimportant, except for this function that they carry out.

The many facets of the debate over the Affordable Care Act also reflect this. Remember "Death Panels" and "Rationing Care?" Both of those were tropes brought up by opponents of the Act to convey to people the idea that if the ACA were to pass, that their inalienable right to Importance would be, in fact, alienated, and decisions over who was worthy and who was not would be made by "faceless government bureaucrats" - otherwise known as "people who don't understand how important you are." On the flip side, those who support the idea of the government taking steps to ensure access to a certain level of care see critics as advocating a system where people without means are left to fend for themselves when they are in need - unimportant.

But it manifests itself in other ways, too. The Federal government spends a pretty good chunk of change every year making sure that the President of the United States of America is kept safe - and to a lesser extent, that protection is extended to ex-presidents, as well. We're told that the President is a Very Important Person and it would be Really Bad if anything were to happen to them. But there is an entire line of succession, some 17 people long, designed specifically to ensure that the government keeps functioning in just such an instance. This not to say that just because there is a contingency plan in place, that one doesn't guard against the possibility, but realistically, nothing short of a new World War could get through the cocoon around the President, let alone manage an effective decapitation strike against the United States, and so a lot of the expenditure seem more about projecting how Important the president is, rather than protecting him from any sort of credible threat.

In spite of the fact that, really, in the grand scheme of things, we're only temporary, we put a lot of time and effort into convincing ourselves and each other that we matter, that we're relevant - that we're important. Like a lot of things that are baked into us from the start, we're not as aware of it as we could be. In fact, being too aware of it is seen as pathological. We are supposed to matter, and to resist being irrelevant. But the Universe carries on, unaware of our efforts.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Playing the Odds

It’s been said time and again that people are poor judges of probabilities, especially when any meaningful degree of precision is called for. Whether you see this as a facet of the collective construct of socialization we call human nature or simply a limitation of the human condition due to the working of the brain, this fact has been demonstrated over and over again. People tend to weight a potential risk of loss much higher than a comparable opportunity for and equal gain and they tend to weight the risk of rare but mediagenic (interesting) occurrences as much higher than the risk of common but mundane happenings. And of course, they tend to underestimate the risks inherent in any activity that they have become emotionally invested in.

However, as in so many other things, we believe ourselves to be more capable in this area than we otherwise are, often insisting that our understandings of the probabilities are correct even when it can be directly demonstrated that they are not; and sometimes, even when we are shown why.

As a result, any system that requires that people be able to accurately assess risks and opportunities for it to function properly is, in effect, doomed to eventual failure in a critical area. By the same token, any system that bases itself on the inaccuracy of human assessments (and on telling the people who made them that they are, in fact, accurate) becomes beholden to those inaccuracies; and must then concern itself with conforming appearances to the skewed reality that the flawed assessments predict, rather than what reality dictates. As time goes on, the fact that each flawed assessment is flawed in its own way requires an ever increasing number of doctored appearances, and/or the contention that appearances that differ too greatly from the preferred, including those that mirror reality, are at best incorrect and at worst deliberate fabrications.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Wrong Bad Idea

In the wake of members of the crowd appearing to enthusiastically cheering for a man to die if he became critically ill after refusing to purchase medical insurance came the news that a former Ron Paul campaign manager, Kent Snyder had died of complications from pneumonia not long after Representative Paul had suspended his 2008 bid for the presidency. The Paul campaign did not offer health insurance to it's staffers and because a pre-existing condition "made the premiums too expensive" for Snyder to afford, according to family. This has been picked up on as proof that Paul is a heartless bastard, who would rather allow even people close to him to die, rather than see them insured.

This is an unfair characterization. First off, Snyder did not die from lack of care. In fact, the total bill was $400,000. If anyone got the short end of the stick here, it was the hospital. Secondly, exactly what Paul advocates happened. Friends immediately started raising money to pay off the debt. I don't know if Ron Paul himself contributed. Personally, I suspect that he did, but I have no way at my fingertips to verify that.

But it does expose a flaw in the libertarian conception of how health care should work. Health insurers, being primarily for-profit entities who are trying to make money, are going to avoid insuring people who are more likely than not to end up taking more money out of the pool than they put in. Their options to voluntarily contract with others to reduce their risk of being bankrupted by medical expenses are limited, leaving them with nothing other than charity to fall back on. And it's worth stating that in a strictly Libertarian society, it would be considered inappropriate to mandate that hospitals care for all comers - they would have the freedom to pick and chose who they dealt with, just like any other business. And in a society where entering into good contracts is the responsibility of the individual, abuses could be rampant.

That said, it's worth pointing out that the Left's current rallying cry - the most Americans with the resources to ensure that others don't suffer premature death due to lack of care - is also problematic. If Americans are so unwilling to pay to keep one another healthy that the only way to ensure public health is by mandating that everyone pay into a pool and threatening consequences for non-participation, democracy starts working against you. You either need a situation in which an "enlightened minority" strips the majority of the right of refusal, or you start turning the electorate against itself, encouraging the less well-off to vote that the better off shoulder the burden and then hoping that you don't trigger a tragedy of the commons.

This highlights the central issue of most ideological positions - they tend to have views of human nature that are too rigid to adapt themselves to reality. And, when it comes down to it, all politics is about working with and/or controlling human nature to sustain societies. Just as the libertarian idea that charity can be relied upon is flawed because it doesn't scale well, the progressive idea that the tendency of coercive systems to corruption and authoritarianism can be controlled indefinitely by properly educated leadership is just as flawed because it presumes that the right people can always be elevated into positions of power.

There are valid criticisms of Representative Paul's position on how health care should be funded. The idea that he favors simply allowing people to die from lack of coverage is not one of them. Given this, the Left's rush to score points with this to energize their base and cast aspersions on the Republican candidates as a whole is unbecoming and should be abandoned.

Place Gun, A, To Head of Hostage, B

BOEHNER SOUNDBITE: Job creators in America basically are on strike. And it's not confusion about the policies. It's the policies themselves.

ANDREA [SEABROOK]: His answer? Reform the tax code, making it fairer and to lower rates. Cancel or change all government regulation of business, that could cost money to the economy. And make deep cuts in federal spending, including reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Boehner Lobs Supply Side Shell In Fiscal Trench War With Obama
When I heard this, my first thought was: "What on Earth was John Boehner thinking?"

If you take even a moment to consider the subtext of this, you come away with the idea that there are few jobs because the people with the power to create them refuse to do so as a way of pressuring the government. In other words, the high unemployment rate, and the misery that it engenders is due to "Job creators" who are willing to deliberately allow their fellow citizens to suffer for lack of work because of a squabble with the government.

This seems odd to me, mainly because Speaker Boehner isn't running to be the Republican nominee for President. He doesn't have to frame things in such a one-sided and ideological manner. We I a business owner, I don't see how I could publicly agree with the Speaker's assessment. Especially when he could have just as easily said that business owners can't create jobs.

This is the problem with the drive to put as much distance between the ideological sides as possible. As savvy a politician as the Speaker of the House of Representatives has gone on record as characterizing the nation's high unemployment rate as a hostage scenario - and he's siding with the hostage takers. Perhaps he feels that there is a large enough Republican base that this is a sound strategy. But I suspect that he simply forgot that not everyone who might hear him has the utmost faith that his ideological stance is anything more than that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Socializing Risk

When I was younger, my father taught me an interesting lesson. "If you let them," he said, "many people will buy what they want, and beg for what they need. Responsible adulthood is to first buy what you need, and then those things that you can afford of what you want."

That is what makes the flap over Wolf Blitzer's question to Representative Ron Paul so confusing to me. Ron Paul and other putative Libertarians are being derided in favor of a theory that says, in effect, "If people buy what they want, and then - through their own intentions - cannot pay for what they need, society should force its other members to do without things that they want to cover the shortfall." I understand the sentiment, especially if you are of the mind that without allowing such deliberate free-riding, it's difficult or impossible to ensure that those people who cannot afford even the basics are well cared for. But it seems to me that it's susceptible to one of the same criticisms that's often leveled against libertarianism. It doesn't scale well. We understand this, because we don't practice it on a larger scale than out own borders. Why is a destitute person in sub-Saharan Africa allowed to die of preventable diseases simply due to poverty if it is unconscionable that a fellow American who deliberately took a risk is not to be saved? I don't see how the simple fact of being born outside of a geographical border changes that calculus (and neither, I might add, do most Libertarians, who feel that the African should be free to come here and avail themselves of resources without restriction).

Even Communism expected that people would work to the best of their ability, and then take out what they needed - not everything they could carry. Had they been correct in that, the Soviet Union should have had massive surpluses to share with other parts of the world, or even to maintain itself in grand style. But it simply couldn't scale to the population of people that it had to manage, and corruption took hold. And those corrupt people weren't the poor, who took a little extra now and then - they were the already well off, who took advantage of the mechanisms that the state put in place to force contribution to enrich themselves.

I know that we see ourselves as more enlightened than that. "We," we tell ourselves, "will get it right. Few enough of us will succumb to the temptation to free ride that this will work for us where it failed before." But I'm not so sure that we're either more intelligent, more ethical or more responsible than others who have tried less one-sided social contracts than the one that is proposed here, yet still had them fail.

And the vitriol that the debate sparks, even though the issue seems fairly cut-and-dried to me, leads me to suspect that I'm correct to be uncertain.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Open Letter

Look lady, I know that you were very disappointed, and likely insulted, that the 1930’s book on birds that's been in your family since your grandfather's time (or since you jacked it from the library as a kid) didn't fetch a better offer than 25¢ from the buy counter at Half-Price Books. Unless the book was a lot more beaten up than it appeared, the offer of a quarter seemed really low to me, too.

BUT - That wasn't the fault of the guy at the checkout counter and your passive-aggressive messing with him simply made you look like an idiotic twit. He was confused and uncomfortable, the rest of us were bewildered and you seeming happy to have made someone who hadn't done you any harm squirm left a foul taste in everyone's mouths. You could have just expressed your disappointment, politely and plainly. Or you could have been really smart and taken the book to a professional who specializes in rare books and gotten it appraised instead of bringing it to a used-book chain.

The real world isn't like an episode of "Raid the Attic To Sell Off Your Grandparents' Stuff and Get Rich Quick." On TV, they select the people who they show, and weed out the people who aren't sitting on something that turns out to be worth a small fortune and/or who just wouldn't make good television. (Don't wait by the phone. The call's not coming.) If you actually knew enough to be able to accurately appraise the value of your book, you also would have known that the people most likely to buy it wouldn't randomly wander into a used bookstore in a half-empty strip mall looking for one. Nor are they likely to pay top dollar for a book that some random choad offers up on E-Bay. And even if they would, E-Bay would want a cut to be the middleman, so you wouldn't see all of the money in any event.

I know that it's ego-boosting to be mean to people in service professions. It gives you a feeling of being superior to your fellow human beings that you use to salve the bruises that you sustained when people who think that they're such hot stuff put you down. And I know that you don't care that the people in line behind you thought that you were little more than a mean-spirited wench with remarkably poor social skills. When confronted with not getting something you thought you were entitled to, you set out to hate on a fellow American who was doing nothing other than what he was being paid to do and wasn't a party to your hurt and embarrassment. I've long been of the opinion that we don't need terrorists - they're amateurs compared to the spite that we have for each other. And who do we have here? Why, it's Exhibit A.

Okay, I've railed on long enough, and in doing so proved that it actually is possible to waste part of the Internet. So I'm going to wrap up with the first thought that crossed my mind once I actually figured out just what the Hell your issue was.

Grow up. We have enough problems as it is.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Four Color History?

Looking for some short reading material, I picked up The Big Lie, by Veitch and Erskine. The basic premise is a woman uses the Large Hadron Collider to travel back in time to try to stop the World Trade Center attacks on September 11. (Don't ask.) Her efforts are derailed by her husband and his co-workers who are utterly convinced that even if her story of hijacked aircraft was true, the towers couldn't possibly come down due to aircraft strikes.

Patriotic, isn't it?
I'm not going to rate The Big Lie as September 11th fiction, because I don't find the Truther movement to be compelling, and the story is really in service of that. What I find more interesting is the use of the Futile Time Travel trope. I've never cared for this trope, because the time traveler always turns out to be something of a dolt, despite the fact that they've managed to master time travel. And this instance is no exception. Rather than calling in a bomb threat or pulling the fire alarm or even actually starting a fire in the building, our intrepid time traveler from today (2011) decides to show people on her iPad what's going to happen to them if they stay put. And she doesn't go to the NYPD or the FBI - she goes straight to her husband's office, in a risk management firm in the World Trade Center.

To be fair, these sorts of stories are hard to tell. (And this particular story has the added burden of using time travel to lay the groundwork for a conspiracy narrative.) You have to explain how someone who knows exactly what terrible tragedy is about to happen can't manage to stop it. And the easiest way to do that, is, frankly, to rob them of the sense to do the obvious, despite the fact that they have all of the information they need. Now this particular story also throws in the added complication of having the time traveler arrive in the past later than she intended (which is a trope all it's own), so she's rushed and supposedly not thinking straight. But this brings up another issue with time travel. If you can hop back to a point where you are effectively in two places at once, and you realize that you didn't get it right, why not just try again? If you honestly think you can alter history, a la "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," you basically have all the time in the world.

I don't know if the average reader is going to be more concerned with the storytelling style than the content of the story, like I was, but I found the cliches and tropes that they used to be distracting. When you're trying to tell a story that you feel is important, how you tell it matters. Because the tropes they used tended to break suspension of disbelief, the basic preachiness of the story became evident, and that weakened the impact. While I'm not sure how else you'd tell the story they were laying out, I don't know that I'd have used a speculative fiction format. The idea that one could go back and prevent it all from happening is an enticing one, and I almost think the story would have been better if it had been allowed to succeed, although this may have opened a can of worms the writer would have found difficult to contain. In the end you have a typical (if slightly paranoid) comic book story, although the heroine is perhaps a little less competent than we'd come to expect.

For Your Own Good

A friend of mine lent me a copy of Robert Frank's "Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class" and, starting last might, I blitzkrieged my way through it. The basic premise is simple - rising income and wealth inequality is bad for everyone, and that it harms the middle class in particular. It's a very interesting book, lightly and deftly written. It avoids a lot of jargon and going off into the weeds, although this does make it seem a bit unsupported at times. A number of Frank's ideas have gained some mainstream traction so I was familiar with them already - even so it was interesting to see them in a complete intellectual context.

The basic jist of the book can be summed up this way. The spending habits of people at the upper end of the wealth and income distribution tend to foster a certain level of necessary imitation - not only from their peers, but from people farther down the ladder, as we do not judge solely in relation to our own circumstances, but have to "keep up with the Joneses," as it were. As the distance between the top and the bottom increases, the people at the lower end of the ladder find themselves spending more and more simply to try to stay in the race; and it is a race that they cannot voluntarily drop out of, because there are very real social, economic and physical consequences for not playing.

One of the major tenets of the book is that we often engage in behaviors that are very smart from an individual perspective, but pointless or even counter-productive when we all engage in them. The common explanation of "the Tragedy of the Commons" is an example. If I share a common pasture, it makes sense for me to utilize as much of this "free" resource as I possibly can. But when everyone does the same, the pasture is quickly overgrazed, and there is nothing for anyone. Accordingly, conservation of the pasture only makes sense if everyone else does it, otherwise those who conserve are simply leaving resources on the table to be exploited by others who will overuse them, and the overgrazing still occurs.

By the same token there are activities that are "smart" when everyone engages in them, but have nasty potential consequences for the individual. These examples are the ones where Mr. Frank devotes most of his energy. One is that we'd all be better off if we bought smaller cars - but if I have a small car, and you have a large one, I have a much greater risk of dying if our cars collide, so the smart thing for me to do is buy the largest vehicle I can afford (where size is roughly correlated with cost). Such scenarios are important to the book, because they establish the necessity of spending that we would otherwise consider to a function of conspicuous consumption, and thus, purely discretionary.

It was all very interesting, but I started to sour on it towards the end, when Frank began making policy recommendations. Mainly because Frank falls back on the common refrain of the committed social engineer: When confronted with behaviors that are socially desirable, but lose out to behavior that are individually desirable, the way to promote the socially desirable behaviors is to artificially poison the individually desirable behaviors. In other words, you promote the behaviors you want not by making those behaviors more rewarding, but by making the ones you don't want less rewarding.

I understand the strategy, but not only does it demand a high degree of control over people's lives and circumstances, but it presumes that you've accurately covered all of the possibilities. Making "A" less attractive to promote "B" presumes that there is no third option "C" that people will find more attractive than "B." Making "B" more attractive than "A" on it's own merits seems like a better choice. But no-one ever seems to advocate for it. Part of it seems to be a focus on outcomes, crossed with a dualistic world-view. If all I want is more of "A" and "B" is the only viable alternative, promoting "A" or discouraging "B" aren't functionally different. In the end, I think a lot of it comes down to: "Once we've done this, people will see the benefits and then they'll come on board. But right now, it's too hard to explain it to them, and getting it done is more important than garnering public support." I've never felt that this was a winning strategy. People don't support items that they don't perceive as being in their best interests, regardless of how often someone else declares that it is. And when something they don't support is foisted upon them, they start looking for ways to get around it. But I am starting to really wonder why it's so common, considering the limited number of scenarios in which it would be the optimal path.

The Godfather Clause

While it is said that religion succeeds to the degree that is not subject to tests of proof, there is an interesting phenomenon that I have noted in religious people, most notably Christians, do expect that their faith would survive scientific tests of proof - even though most of the things they offer up as proof wouldn't pass muster under any other circumstances. For example, for many, if not all, non-believers, the relationship between God and the Bible is a classic case of circular logic. The Bible tells us what we need to know about God, and it is God who vouches for the accuracy of the Bible. Nothing controversial there. But what's interesting is that Christians who are otherwise perfectly capable of calling out circular logic when they see it will argue the point that the Bible-God relationship is circular. (This is, I suspect, an artifact of the idea that we tend to understand circular arguments to be false - therefore we also tend to feel that an argument that is true cannot be circular.)

Related to this idea is the concept that faith is validated by the length of time that it has endured and the breadth of its adoption - the idea that the fact that billions of people believe and that belief goes back so far into history acts as sort of proof. Which again, is something that otherwise isn't considered scientifically valid (although it's popular in advertising). And many believers are quick to dismiss a consensus that contradicts their worldview. In this respect, religion has a sort of literal "Grandfather Clause," which is interesting mainly for its invisibility to the faithful themselves, despite the fact that the differing burden of proof that faith often claims is a integral part of the definition of faith.

For many, I suspect that there is something lacking in the idea of faith, perhaps because of the relative uniqueness of the concept. Therefore they seek to obviate their faith, which has the ironic effect of bringing it into even higher relief.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Third Road Not Taken

If you look at what's going on today, Robert, in America, we're having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election and it's like they don't even overlap. And what we argue is that's because the incentives of politics today — money, gerrymandered districts — are so misaligned with the needs of the country that they become like a closed circle, operating on their own, and something's gotta break through that, and what we argue for is an independent, third party that actually can show that there is a huge middle in this country that demands a different politics.
Thomas Freidman "Thomas Friedman On 'How America Fell Behind'' All Things Considered. National Public Radio. Tuesday, 6 September 2011.
There is, in my opinion, a major flaw in Mr. Freidman's analysis. Given that it is we, the voting public-at-large, that elects politicians into office based on those very incentives — namely money and gerrymandered districts — why would you expect that a new political party would change that? After all, there are already plenty of political parties in the United States. If you only take those that came up since the turn of the century you get: the America First Party, American Populist Party, American Third Position Party, America's Independent Party, Boston Tea Party, Citizens Party of the United States, Green Party of the United States, Independence Party of America, Jefferson Republican Party, Modern Whig Party, Objectivist Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Populist Party of America, United States Marijuana Party, United States Pirate Party, Unity Party of America and the Workers Party. How many more do we need before we realize that it's not enough to wish for a "third," or a seventy-fifth, party to come along?

Money is important because most Americans who are not politics junkies make little to no effort to actively go out and seek information on new political parties. After all, how many of the parties I listed above had you heard of before reading them? So in order to reach people, which should be as simple as setting up a website, political campaigns have to spend up to millions of dollars on advertising. I could put up a website with nothing on it but videos of Felicia Day doing calisthenics in a kaftan and, via simple word-of-mouth, generate more unique visitors in a day than many of the websites for the above political parties will in their entire existence  Don't get me wrong, Ms. Day is an attractive woman, but if watching her work out while dressed like a middle-easterner is more compelling than politics, yet another new political party won't solve the problem.

And the same with Gerrymandering. This practice (the name of which is an affront to salamanders) only works because once you know what party line most people follow it almost never changes. So if you properly Gerrymandered district to be Democratic or Republican, it more or less doesn't matter what policies one espouses, only the party they belong to. The person whose party affiliation matches that of the constructed voting block wins, virtually invariably. Again, exactly how is a third party going to change this? Especially in a culture that derides any vote other than for the two major parties as literally thrown away.

I understand where Mr. Freidman is coming from. But a third party is not going to come in and rescue us, for the simple reason that we wouldn't willingly go with it unless we were certain it was going to win. And the idea of a third party rising to parity with the "big two" from a standing start is laughable on its face. But, perhaps more importantly, once we change the way we interact with politics, by becoming more willing to seek out an evaluate differing positions to understand which ones we feel best represent us and which ones represent the best chance to improve our lives — and punctuate that with a willingness to change course if things aren't quite what we expected, we won't need to be rescued. The two major parties will have lost their holds on us.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Half of What You See

About a week or so ago, I was listening to the radio, and I heard a news story that contained an untruth. I knew that it was untrue because I had the proof right there in the room with me.

Now, the media getting things wrong has been one of my pet peeves for a while, and I've typed out a few posts on it from time to time. But this time something occurred to me - no-one is ever always right. We know this. For my part, I understand that I don't "know" anything that I wasn't there to witness or otherwise have first-hand knowledge of. So why do we expect "the media" to always get it right?

Now, this isn't meant to be a backtrack from my previous criticisms of inaccuracies - especially those that could have been avoided with a little research on Google or in a library. The relevant point here is this: Why do we treat any given statement from a single media source as obviously accurate? Especially when so many news sources simply pass along stories from the Associated Press or other news agencies? It seems to me that any piece of information that doesn't have some sort of independent confirmation should be treated as at least suspect, if not unreliable. After all, no-one's perfect, right?

And in this regard, another point occurred to me. Weblogs, like this one, are free for the asking. I met a guy whose hat has its own online presence. (Don't ask - he said it was a long story, and I took him at his word. While making sure that he wasn't between me and the exit.) Basically, as long as you're in a place with reasonably unrestricted access to the Internet, you can be your own reporter. Many activists already are. Will a lot of the information gained in this way be wrong? Likely. After all, if you're only going to believe half of what you see, it's sensible to believe some or none of what you hear. But it's also possible to obtain more than viewpoint on something, if enough people are writing about it. And you can usually tell from the way something is written if the author was there, or if they're just repeating something that they've heard from someone else.

And that is really the only way to have confidence that what you've learned is true. To have multiple unrelated sources, all telling roughly the same story. And we have the resources for that - although for readers, the time might be an issue. But between us, we should be able to create a more reliable and accurate means of getting the news out. It's worth it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

News That's Unfit to Print

So a friend of mine finds a link to an article on Yahoo! that asks "Do you know how to spot skin cancer?"

Well, to make a long story short, the article at the other end of the link was basically paid advertising from a cheap skin-care products company done up to look like a serious article on warning signs for skin cancer, complete with a link to an assessment that like would have breathlessly exclaimed that you need their products.

In this case, while they didn't manage to gain a new customer, they sure managed to scare someone out of their wits. I'm a bit annoyed with Yahoo for allowing that sort of thing. If an article is a paid advertisement, is should be noted as such, rather than being tucked in with the news articles. Of course, they don't shoulder all of the blame - after all, the sponsorship of the article wasn't hidden, and even if the name wasn't familiar, a quick Google search would have revealed their business.

But I can understand how having to always be on guard becomes tiresome after a while.


And Eos arose, rosy-fingered, from the edge of Oceanus, to open the gates of Heaven, and herald the arrival of Helios...