Sunday, December 30, 2012


Nothing drives home the arbitrary nature of the calendar quite like the New Year. Come Tuesday, everything will be the same as it was the day before, yet at the same time it will be another in an endless series of new beginnings.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bang, Bang

A little over four years ago, a local Seattle character known as the "Tuba Man" was fatally beaten by three youths near Seattle Center, where the iconic Space Needle stands. A little less than three days ago, police suspect, one of the young men involved shot a man to death in a bar in suburban Bellevue. And, in an unrelated case, another one of the assailants is currently facing federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Given the events on the national stage over the past couple of weeks, there will be no national uproar about this. There will be no added calls for a dialog about "gun culture" or the relevance of the Second Amendment to our modern lives. No politicians will incite, and then pander to, the fears of the public over these events.

But this is where the majority of firearms homicide stems from. Random suburbanites suddenly going on shooting sprees with "military-style" rifles with "high-capacity" magazines are, despite being inherently mediagenic, actually very rare in the grand scheme of things. This is not to say that two in less than a month should be ignored, but it is to say that they are not the most pressing problem that is in front of us, if the goal is to prevent murders, rather than calm public fears.

The problem that Ja'mari Alexander-Alan Jones and Billy Chambers represent doesn't drive headlines. But it's the serious one that underlies the shooting that do drive headlines. The use of violence as a tool. Ed "Tuba Man" McMichael was killed because three young men saw assaulting him to be the fastest way to get their hands on some ready cash, and they were willing to take the risk of going to jail for doing so. Not knowing anything about Jones' target in the Bellevue shooting, or the possible relationship between them, I can't speculate about a motive. But this much is clear - whatever Jones was after, if he is the shooter, he sought violence as the path to getting it.

Guns, being inanimate objects, don't kill people. They do, however, make it much easier to kill people, especially from a distance. The "assault weapons" that people have become so afraid of make it much easier to kill numbers of people before they can either flee the scene or law enforcement personnel arrive on the scene. Assuming that we could legislate them out of existence, going forward, murder would be more difficult. But it wouldn't be impossible. Murder happens because some is ready, willing and able to take another person's life. As John McGuinness notes, we can't just treat the symptoms - we have to treat the disease. And laws can't do that for us. Weapons legislation can make a dent in "able." But as long as we continue to ignore "ready" and "willing," the body count will continue to rise. Even if it's slowly enough that we can pretend not to notice.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Minus One

Adam Lanza killed 28 people when he went on a shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut. "20 children in Sandy Hook Elementary School, plus six adult faculty and staff members," himself, and his mother, Nancy Lanza - the first to die that morning. Yet for many people, from a local convenience store and deli owner to President Obama, the number of victims stands at 26.

The omission of Adam Lanza as a victim is understandable. Regardless of whatever it was that drove him to mass murder, or how little control he had over those circumstances, Lanza has been indelibly painted as a monster, evil in human form, and there can be no overt sympathy for him that doesn't run the risk of being considered an insult to those who died, those who survived and the families and community of all involved. But, to a certain degree we understand that mentally ill or disabled are not fully to blame for their actions. But blame MUST be assigned. And thus, the omission of Nancy Lanza.

Of course, eventually, all of the victims names will be forgotten. As is usual with such things, only the killer achieves the dubious, hollow immortality of having their name persist the public's fickle consciousness. But there's something sad in the rush to bury, and perhaps spit upon the grave of, Mrs. Lanza. Normally, the single mother who works to raise a child with mental issues is lionized, at least by those who are aware of her situation. But failure is not tolerated, quickly earning the label of "bad parent" as the mother of Semaj Booker found out. She too, was on the receiving end of public opprobrium for her son's (much less serious) misdeeds, even though she'd asked for help with him.

From the other side of the continent, this isn't an emotionally charged issue for me, and so I can only understand in a vague, detached way the need to cast Mrs. Lanza as callous (or careless) enabler, rather than victim, of her son's actions. Without the emotional aspect, it seems unnecessary, needlessly divisive and symptomatic of a national tendency towards scapegoating, rather than problem-solving.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kris Kringle, Ladies Man

Insurance doesn't pay for having coal surgically removed.
Dad caught Mommy kissing Santa Claus, and had a fleeting moment of triumph before Saint Nick schooled him in why a junior accountant with a gun was no match for a man whose job it was to visit all corners of the Earth in the middle of the night driving a sleigh full of valuable presents.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


The link to yet another story about the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut asked a simple question:

Newtown Tragedy: Would A Good God Allow Such Evil?
It's a question that a lot of people have asked over the years. I know that as someone who doesn't believe in deities, some people will consider it anything from inappropriate to insulting that I weigh in on this, but I think that this is the wrong question, and a better one is:
Newtown Tragedy: Why Do We Think That God Should Place Us Above Such Things?
"If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent, why does He allow such misfortunes?" The NPR story asks, before telling us that the word for reconciling this "paradox" is Theodicy, which is then defined as "attempting to justify God's goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering." But it seems to me that something is missing there. In a way, you have to go back to the Taxonomy of God that another NPR reader created and, consulting entry 5c. "God controls everything and everything that happens is a result of her will," reframe the central paradox as: "If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent and in direct control of Earthly events, why does He inflict such misfortunes upon people who do not appear to deserve them?" Otherwise, I don't see the problem here, as I don't understand why the simple fact that, as the bumper sticker says, "'God is good. Evil is real. And God is all powerful," logically leads to: "Pick two." Rabbi Folberg may believe that if "those three propositions as true, then they're logically inconsistent," but I don't. If one can accept that a benevolent God can murder every first born child in the nation of Egypt after hardening the heart of Pharoah (among other things), a simple failure to constant protect humanity from itself and/or the forces of nature shouldn't be considered a divine failure - especially if one believes in the idea of Original Sin. In other words, unless you're of the opinion that God micromanages the world to such a degree that events like the Indian Ocean Tsunami or the Newtown shootings could not have happened without specific divine intervention or permission, why must their occurrence mean that a god cannot be benevolent?

So, as far as I'm concerned, people haven't yet answered the question of why belief in a benevolent deity should mean that we never expect bad things to happen to us. You don't have to be a Bible scholar to understand that God had no problem with the world being unequal and unfair. Under such circumstances, the outbursts of the insane and natural disasters should be considered par for the course.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Laws We Can Agree With

The "Rule of Law" is always a tricky thing, because laws aren't really about preventing undesirable behavior. They're about providing a means for punishing people who are caught. So laws only "prevent" acts to the degree that people are willing to accept the fact that they should respect the law over acting on their inclinations.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an injunction against the Sea Shepherd conservation group, preventing them from interfering with Japanese whaling vessels. According to the BBC, Sea Shepherd is "questioning the legality of the ruling." It's a common pattern - groups expect legal victories to be binding and point to them as proof of the correctness of their cause, while legal setbacks are proclaimed legally suspect.

A pervasive sense that "Right makes Right" (the idea that the rightness of the ends confers the right to pursue whatever means are chosen) is at the heart of a number of different disputes and controversies. Take immigration into the United States from Latin America. Supporters of more open borders and of the mainly Hispanic undocumented immigrant community basically consider current United States laws on the subject illegitimate, and a lot of the rhetoric around immigration reform from such activists basically calls for either changing the laws to something that current and future migrants can accept, or simply ignoring them.

As it is with a lot of things, however, it is perhaps national governments that are the biggest perpetrators of this - being quick to point out areas where unfriendly governments are in breach of international law, yet never seeming to find their way to accepting that laws should sometimes have adverse consequences for their own ambitions. The United States, while far from the only culprit in such matters, is often conspicuous in its habit of counting as legitimate laws that apply to nations Washington dislikes at the moment while ignoring or protesting those that are inconvenient for itself or its allies.

We don't yet have a way of making a system where individual people, organizations and governments can pick and chose which rules apply to them workable on a larger scale. Until we come up with one we should have a greater expectation that groups we support should either live with the rules as they are written, or go through the process of changing them.

No Good Choice

In Ireland, a change to the nation's abortion laws is afoot after an Indian woman there died after miscarrying. According to the family of Savita Halappanavar, she had requested to be allowed to abort the fetus after developing severe pain.

According to Mr. Halappanavar, when his wife first requested an abortion, hospital staff denied her request, citing the fact that Ireland is a Catholic nation. When asked why this should also apply to Hindus, Mr. Halappanavar relates: "But she said 'I'm sorry, unfortunately it's a Catholic country' and it's the law that they can't abort when the foetus is live."

That may now be about to change. From what I understand from reading the BBC articles on the case, abortion can be considered lawful in circumstances that threaten the life of the mother, including suicide, and this has been the case for 20 years. So what's being considered now, is " legislation to give certainty to doctors as to when terminations can be carried out and under what circumstances."

Unsurprisingly, there is pushback from anti-abortion groups in the country, who claim that Ireland's prohibitions on abortions don't involve a health risk to the mother. The Irish Church is also against such legislation. The driving factor appears to be that the lack of guidance means that all abortions are effectively prohibited, although there does exist what is termed "the British solution;" presumably women traveling to Britain for the procedure. According to the bishops of the Catholic Church in Ireland: "If what is being proposed were to become law, the careful balance between the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child in current law and medical practice in Ireland would be fundamentally changed. It would pave the way for the direct and intentional killing of unborn children. This can never be morally justified in any circumstances."

Now, I was raised Roman Catholic, and attended a Catholic high school, and my understanding of Church policy was that the first part of the bishops' statement is so trumped by the first as to be very nearly false on it's face. According to Lisa Sowle Cahill, a Catholic theology instructor at Boston college, in a situation where continuing with a pregnancy places the risk of mortality at nearly 100%: "The official church position would mandate that the correct solution would be to let both the mother and the child die." When a nun, administrator of a hospital treating a woman in just this situation approved an abortion, she was excommunicated. Now, when I was a student, back in the 1980's, I'd been taught that the Church didn't expect everyone to stand around and watch two people die, rather than just one, but that if it were a choice as to saving the mother or the child, the mother always lost out. (It seems that things have become more stringent while I was away.) How always sacrificing the mother, let alone allowing both mother and child to die, affords any protection to the mother's right to life is beyond me.

I realize, that as far as the Church is concerned, that clarifying the law is to allow for Evil acts to be committed. But the solution to that is lobby to have the laws changed, even if that means requiring that Ireland pull out of human rights treaties, and taking the public heat that this stance would require. Maintaining a de-facto ban on an otherwise legal medical procedure, while spouting empty rhetoric about how this balances competing interests, isn't an honest way to proceed.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Your Move

So there has been another mass shooting. This time in a grade school in Connecticut. And again there is a clamor for tighter regulation of guns. It's possible to talk about how this is the fault of undiagnosed mental illness. It's possible to talk about how relatively rare mass shootings are. It's possible to talk about how if an adult in the school had been armed, they could have stopped the shootings.

But if this continues, none of that is going to matter. What is going to matter is that people want to feel safe. They feel that the presence of firearms, especially ones that they associate (correctly or not) with military and paramilitary uses, trigger a feeling of being unsafe. And every time there is another mass shooting, and every time they feel that the rate of mass shootings is increasing, they feel more and more unsafe.

There has been a pervasive feeling, among certain segments of the gun-owning population, that President Obama, the United Nations or just "the Gubmint" in general have hatched a hateful plot to take away their weapons and leave them vulnerable to a New World Order that wants to take away their Guns, persecute them for worshiping their God and give their children over to the Gays as sexual playthings. Despite their sometimes laughable fears, the threat to their right to Keep and Bear Arms will not come from the Oval Office, New York or Washington D.C. It is going to come from the parents who fear for their children, the caring people who fear for their spouses and partners and the members of the public in general who fear for themselves. It had become popular for people (many of them the same ones who support gun rights) to say that "Freedom isn't free." And they are right. But Freedom isn't always worth any cost either, especially when it's a freedom that you don't use and don't feel a need to have. And when the apparent price of the freedom of someone else to own weapons becomes to high, people will shed that right to be free of the cost.

If things keep escalating as they are, eventually, something is going to have to be done. And if the public forces the government to do it, it's not going to be pretty. The Federal government, is has been observed, does only two things well - procrastinate and overreact. So when public pressure pushes them into action, it's not going to be a measured or targeted response. It's going to be prying guns from people's cold, dead fingers while their neighbors cheer from across the street.

Those people who believe in the right for citizens to be armed are going to have to start taking the responsibility that this right carries seriously. Pointing out that the vast majority of gun owners are law abiding citizens isn't going to cut it. Suggesting that everyone buy a weapon and learn to use it is ludicrously unrealistic. Blaming the mass media for encouraging copycats by making celebrities out of murderers while the dead are mostly forgotten is pointless. Noting that people have killed as many or more people under similar circumstances with knives is a waste of time. Second amendment or none, if people feel that the price of public access to guns is too high, that access will go away. Thinking the Constitution will protect them will simply leave them in for the same rude awakening that many other groups who relied on it for protection woke up to.

I don't believe that "Gun Control" is going to be as easy as people think it will. But the "War on Terror" is a thing that's difficult to the point of being utterly Quixotic, and it's been going full steam ahead long past the point where I thought it would have been given up for futite, and the "War on Drugs" represents a stubborness that can move mountains. So I have no illusions that once "Gun Control" gets going, no level of money or effort will be spared. So if you're of the opinion that the right to keep and bear arms is important to you, you'd better get to work. The clock is ticking.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Collective Investment

Michigan is in an uproar after majority Republicans in the state legislature, faced with losing seats in November's elections, pushed through a right-to-work law there. President Obama spoke out against such actions.

"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have anything to do with economics; they have everything to do with politics," President Obama said.
"What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
Michigan passes 'right-to-work' legislation
In a nutshell, right-to-work laws are geared towards mandating "open shops," and thus disallowing unions from mandating that workers either join a union or pay union dues or fair-share fees as a condition of remaining employed. ("Closed shops," outlawed by the Labor-Management Relations Act, prevented non-union workers from being hired. "Union shops" allow for workplaces to mandate joining a union within a certain amount of time as a requirement to remain employed. "Agency shops" allow for the collection of dues or fees from non-union workers who could join the union - again as a condition of employment.)

For proponents of the law, it's ostensibly about freedom of association, and not being forced to pay an organization that one doesn't belong to. For opponents of the law, their stand is ostensibly about preventing free-riders and making sure that unions can do their work. Pro right-to-work activists point to the fact that in those states where such laws exist, there tends to be greater employment (although it's not generally possible to separate out the effect of such rules from the raft of other pro-business initiatives that right-to-work states have enacted). Those in favor of maintaining agency shop rules counter that the jobs pay less and are overall less desirable.

In the end, however, it's all about "money." For the Republican lawmakers and business interests who back such legislation, it's all about reducing the ability of unions to spend money in campaigns, by lowering the amount that they take in. For the Democratic lawmakers and labor groups that oppose right-to-work, such laws are designed to tilt the political playing field in favor of deep-pocketed corporations and wealthy individuals who have the money to fund advertising buys during campaign seasons. And so "money" becomes a stand-in for "access to the average voter," who is perceived as politically apathetic to the point of deciding who to vote for solely on who has the greatest number of colorful yard signs or the highest density of slickly-produced television commercials.

In states where agency shops are allowed, unions share with government a nearly unique ability - that of being able to define a good or service as being of value to someone, provide it unasked-for, present the recipient with a bill and then sanction them for non-payment. Whether or not this is actually a good idea as a matter of public policy is lost within the acrimonious debate over the flow of money into politics. Which is a shame, because it is a worthwhile debate to have.

In effect, union dues and fair-share fees are an investment. And like any investment, there should be an expectation of a return. Whether or not employees feel that membership in a union is worthwhile depends on their perception of the costs and benefits. In union and agency shop situations, the calculus includes the fact that opting out means giving up one's job. In an open shop, it doesn't. Instead, it becomes like public broadcasting - the unions have to make a case to non-members that membership bring benefits (tangible or not) that are worth paying for even though it cannot withhold its primary service. One of the problems that the organized labor movement may have is that this appears to be a difficult case to make at times. Dire warnings of a return to the bad old days of rampant labor abuses and unfair practices by employers often seem hyperbolic and distant.

The decline of union membership among American workers demonstrates, perhaps, the idea that unions are less relevant to people today than they used to be, and the spread of right-to-work laws is a part of that - after all, the lawmakers who enact them were usually elected into their offices. Perhaps it's time that we re-opened that public debate again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

How It Should Be Done

The restaurant business is a tough one. Despite relatively high mark-ups on the actual food, overall margins can be tight. Part of the reason why tipping restaurant wait staff after a sit-down meal is considered a requirement is that restaurant owners push wages down as far as they can. And they still plead poverty at every turn. Which explains comments, after the November elections, from John Schnatter, CEO of Papa John's Pizza and Zane Tankel, CEO of Applebee’s franchisee Apple-Metro that there would be consequences for their workers from the President's re-election, stemming from the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare or just "the federal health care law," would introduce new requirements for them as far as covering their workers. At the same time Darden Restaurants, owners of Red Lobster and the Olive Garden (among others), started testing new staffing patterns that would keep employees below the 30-hour work weeks that would make them eligible for new coverage, and Denny's franchise owner John Metz announced that prices would rise by 5%, and employee hours would be cut in response to the law.

If this was meant to be attempt to marshal public anger, it worked. Except for the minor detail that the anger was directed at the restauranteurs, and not the Obama Administration. According to YouGov BrandIndex Papa John's and Applebees both suffered significant downturns in public opinion after their anti-ACA statements. Denny's saw it's already low rating fall the rest of the way, hitting zero before rebounding. And Darden is backing away from its new staffing plans after announcing that earnings were plummeting, in part because of negative publicity.

What should we think about this? "Bravo." This is the way that things are supposed to work. The public votes with their feet and their wallets to support companies that behave in a way that they approve of, and to punish those that don't toe the line. Sure, it has it's downsides, but it's better than a constant littany of new government regulations. Not that government regulations are, in and of themselves a bad thing, but if a problem can be solved without the need to make the already massive federal code even larger, then we should take it. Of course, this could simply lead to more hiding behind trade associations, rather than braving the public themselves, but still it lets them know that business is all about the customers. Seeking to enlist them in crusades against things those same customers find worthwhile is a bad idea.

The Greatest

Due to an unwise level of incaution on my part, I was roped into a "debate" about the existence of God. And one of the debaters threw out an charge that I'd heard many time before.

"So," he'd said to one of the participants who'd claimed disbelief, "you're arrogant enough to claim that there is nothing in the Universe greater than yourself?"

This escalation in the rhetoric of the "debate" was interesting, mainly because it was the first time in my experience that the charge of "arrogance" had been made explicit - normally the "nothing greater in the Universe" question stood on its own, and if it was charged that an accusation of arrogance had been made, it could be plausibly denied. Of course, it's a common facet of human nature to attribute a failure to understand something a given individual sees as self-evident to a certain level of moral deficiency, even as it's common to deny having made such an attribution.

I've always found upshot of this common Christian rhetorical device, the idea that of all the things in the Universe, mankind is second only to God, to be curious, mainly because it seems to me to be so clearly incorrect. Consider - were I to snap my fingers right now, and the Sun were to be immediately reduced to a cold, dark mass in the center of our solar system, life on Earth would start to suck - a lot - in about the next eight minutes. And, as clever a species as we are, we'd be completely and utterly boned - the Extinction Express would be rolling along. On the other hand, were I to snap my fingers and trigger Life After People, eight minutes in, the Sun would be completely unperturbed. Winner: Sun. If that doesn't count as being greater than humanity, I could always ramp it up a notch - or twelve. Gamma-ray bursts, anyone? Of course, I try to avoid assigning any moral, ethical or intellectual weight to this (not that I was successful the other day), as it's really just a way of looking at the world, and in the grand scheme of things, our opinions are pretty worthless things.

The place that we see for ourselves in the Universe is one of those things that goes beyond science and religion. To a degree, it's part of the emotionally freighted concepts that we have of what it means to be "human," and all that this entails. As such, it's never the objective thing that we often present it as, whether or not we realize it.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse at King Edward VII hospital who passed along a hoax call from a pair of Australian disk jockeys pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles has been found dead. I find myself wondering if there is some sort of cultural issue at work, as neither the BBC story nor the NPR radio story that I heard comes out and says that Mrs. Saldanha took her own life, despite very strongly hinting that this was the case. There's no mystery that news outlets aren't simply coming out and saying that it was a suicide - after all, the investigation likely isn't completed yet. But rather than say even that, there seems to be a lot of dancing around the subject, and that's what I don't understand.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


"I can't let the armchair critics bother me," [R Umar Abbasi] continues. "They were not there. They have no idea how very quickly it happened."
New York Post photographer defiant over subway-death image
Mr. Abbasi has found himself in the middle of a teapot tempest, driven by moral panic-driven over the publication of a photograph of the impending demise of one Ki-Suck Han, who was pushed onto New York City subway tracks; allegedly by a Naeem Davis. If you haven't seen the photograph, it shows Mr. Han standing at the edge of the platform, attempting to climb up, as an oncoming train remorselessly bears down on him. The photograph was published on the front page of the New York Post, with a headline that can only be described as sensationalistic beyond all taste. Mr. Abbasi has weathered storms of criticism from people who now seem to be in a hurry to prove their ethical bona fides by loudly proclaiming that being paid for a photograph of someone about to die is the height of the crass exploitation of man by man. Personally, if this is the worst example of humanity that most of us encounter between now and the New Year, we're more fortunate that we deserve.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

"Why," I sometimes wonder, "are cigarettes still legal?"

When you look at the lengths that governments, prodded by the public health community, go through to make smoking expensive, inconvenient and socially undesirable, I don't understand why there isn't a greater push to simply ban them outright. Australia recently enacted rules that demand that all cigarettes be sold in generic packaging - the only adornment, if you can call it that, being government mandated graphic pictures of negative health outcomes caused by lighting up. Ostensibly, the rationale is to "de-glamorize" smoking. Personally, this makes little sense to me - I've seen plenty of cigarette packages in my day. I don't recall any of them being, in and of themselves, such compelling objects d'art that I was seized with the desire to tear them open and set the contents on fire. Apparently, I'm not the only one.

Anti-smoking lobbyists like Anne Jones know that packaging changes alone won't significantly curb smoking, especially among established smokers.
So... if the goal is to create a smoke-free society, why implement measures that don't work? Why not simply make the production, transport and sale of cigarettes illegal? It's been done for things much less dangerous than tobacco. I understand the idea that tobacco industry is powerful, and has a lot of money, lobbyists and the like, but there seems to be a strange disconnect in play. Public-health-minded governments want to reduce the rate of smoking - to zero to hear them say it, yet they don't want to be the ones who actually put an end to the practice, preferring to simply make smokers so miserable that they do it themselves. This desire to have things both ways doesn't strike me as really workable.