Monday, January 30, 2012

Dealing In Outrage

Did you know that Freddie Mac is betting against hardworking Americans struggling to pay off their mortgages - and stacking the deck so that it wins the bet? It's true! I read it on NPR!

Except that the NPR piece doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, if you think about it in the context of such basic lending concepts of "interest rate risk," why lending institutions sell loans in the first place and what constitutes a "bet," you quickly come to realize that the story here isn't about big Wall Street banks colluding with a government sponsored enterprise to rip off home-buyers who are barely keeping their heads above water. The story here is about how it's pretty much impossible to balance competing interests in a way that everyone comes out ahead. And perhaps how a news outlet spins a story to drive pageviews and position itself as a populist champion for the downtrodden while ignoring important underlying issues that simply wouldn't  be as sexy in the current news environment.

To go into detail about how the story takes a financial quandary and turned into fodder for misplaced populist anger threatens to become a deeper analysis of the whys and wherefores of mortgage lending than I'm really comfortable with writing myself. To make a long story short, the FHLMC is in a position where it serves multiple constituencies: the banks (big and small) that originate home loans, the home buyers who take out the loans, the investors who buy securities on the loans and the taxpayers of the United States, who are the ones who have to make up shortfalls in the FHLMC's finances. This particular NPR story pits the home buyers against the taxpayers. The FHLMC stands accused of making it harder for homeowners to refinance, while at the same time having structured its portfolio in such a way that if large numbers of the mortgages it purchased are refinances, it would lose quite a bit of (taxpayer) money. Or, to be a little more breathless about it, "Freddie Mac prevented households from being able to take advantage of today's mortgage rates — and then bet on it."

The story contends that by siding with the taxpayers, that Freddie Mac chose the wrong side. Because, you see, there's a win-win, if only Freddie Mac would take it:

"There is an argument for [... the actions of the FHLMC being better for taxpayers in general, even though it harms many home buyers] and the Obama Administration and the regulator who controls them have to weigh helping out taxpayers generally against more specific homeowners, but as Chris [Arnold] said, it's very possible that a lot of refinancings could help the economy and taxpayers in the long run."
Jessie Isginger, Pro Publica
Part of the problem here goes back to the multiple masters that the FHLMC was intended to serve. Whenever you set up a system designed to look out for the interests of groups whose interests are directly at odds with one another, someone is going to be screwed. NPR and Pro Publica decided that there was an easy way out, in the form of making the assumption that the taxpayer subsidy that would be given to home purchasers in the form of letting them off the hook for the interest that they originally agreed to pay would be made up for in a new refi-financed spending spree that would drive economic activity to the point that all of the lost revenue would be made up.

In other words, THIS would be the economic stimulus plan that finally worked. Proof of that? None. But this isn't unexpected. After all, it only an eight-minute piece. And it would likely take at least a couple of hours to lay out all the reasoning that underlies their position.

But even if it were explained, would it be any less a "bet?" In fact, it seems like more of a literal gamble than buying a mortgage with a payment stream attached and expecting that payment stream to actually be there. Remember how "frugality" was supposed to be "the new normal?" So... what happens if rather than blowing it on consumer goods, a sizable percentage of these people put the money into the bank? Or pay down other debts? In other words, what happens if this new bet, the one that NPR and Pro Publica are pushing, doesn't pay off? What will their headline be then?

All or Nothing

"Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community -- it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall."
Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campfield (R - Knoxville)
When a friend of mine pointed out an article about Senator Campfield being booted from a restaurant, he noted that, "The sheer volume of ignorance here dates back to the Reagan administration." I beg to differ. This is the sort of ignorance that many people wouldn't have 'fessed up to during the Wilson administration. But, in any event, it raises an interesting question: Is Senator Campfield REALLY ignorant? Or is he simply pandering to a constituency that simply wants to believe that anyone who transgresses their taboo against same-sex relationships would also have no problem with having sex with pretty much anything else that wasn't a human of the opposite gender?

It's a fairly common practice, and one that's always good for some Red Meat to the base. And if we believe that politicians aren't above saying all sorts of stupid, crazy or otherwise ill-considered things when pandering for votes, why should we be surprised when they reference the lowest form of bigotry out of a desire to appeal to the people who vote for them? After all, bigots can vote too, and like many people, they prefer to live in communities of the like minded. Sooner or later, someone is going to come along who, even if they don't believe a word of it themselves, is going to talk the talk to get into office. (If they can do it without feeling the need to scrub themselves clean for hours every night afterwards, that's too bad - but not unexpected.)

But it makes the problem larger than we like to think that it is. Because Senator Campfield's coded assertion that homosexuals will sleep with anything isn't the problem. The fact that he can go on the record with that without committing political suicide is. And not because the people in and around Knoxville, Tennessee have some obligation to be enlightened enough that sexual orientation doesn't matter. If they want to believe homosexuality is a sin, that's between them and the deity they profess to believe in. But it's still slander to call a thief a rapist. Their unwillingness to stop with what those they dislike have actually done, and to expect those that represent them will not stop there either, is where they cross the line.

P.S.: For a somewhat more plausible explanation of the AIDS pandemic, listen to RadioLab on the topic. I don't know that it's the correct explanation, but it's better than Campfield's.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nothing To Hide

"People who are abiding by the law should have no problems with this," said [Fort Lauderdale Police Department Detective Travis] Mandell. "People may feel that their privacy is being infringed on, but when you think about it, every day you walk down the street you are being watched by 20 to 30 cameras from private businesses and homes."
Police roll out video surveillance truck called The Peacemaker
This is a common refrain, designed to put people at ease with more and more police surveillance. And, to be sure, the police are simply doing the job we ask of them. When we say "catch everyone who does something scary and lock them up, and we'll pillory you when you can't," it's to be expected that the police, like anyone else, are going to look for a way to carry out that mandate.

There are a couple problems that I have with this. The first is that I don't trust someone who's a complete stranger any more than I would under any other circumstance, simply because they're wearing a badge. A badge is a symbol - not a mind-control device the keeps people from doing bad things or misusing information that they become privy to. The simple fact that someone is wearing one doesn't make them any more trustworthy than they were an hour before then.

The second is this: What's the definition of "abiding by the law?" Are you sure?

Sec. 16-97. - Misprision.

It shall be unlawful for any person to commit misprision. A person commits misprision when, having knowledge of the commission of a crime or offense in this city, fails to report it to the police department.

Okay, so let's assume they're not going to get you on that one. And you're pretty much covered all around, because you've memorized the entire municipal code of the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and know everything you can and cannot do. Good for you! That mean's you're aware of this:

Sec. 16-1. - State offenses and county ordinances adopted.

(a) State felony. It shall be unlawful for any person to commit, within the corporate limits of the city, any act which is or shall be recognized by the laws of the state as a capital felony, felony of the first degree, felony of the second degree, or felony of the third degree.

(b)  State misdemeanor. It shall be unlawful for any person to commit, within the corporate limits of the city, any act which is or shall be recognized by the laws of the state as a misdemeanor.
So... are you up on the Florida Statutes? Because if you aren't, are you positive that you're abiding by the law?

Of course, it's unlikely that the FLPD will find (or even look for) a way to use their camera trucks to find some poor sod who witnessed or learned about a state-level crime and then didn't report it. And that's not really my point. Actually, despite the exercise that we just went through, my point isn't even that the pool of law abiding citizens is likely smaller than you might think that it is.

Instead, the point is that "People who are abiding by the law," is more or less meaningless as a legal term in this context. Rather it's a public-relations term, that can be roughly translated as "people who trust the police and don't do anything that calls police attention to them."

Which brings us back to the "20 to 30 cameras from private businesses and homes." These can be problematic in their own right, but they, generally speaking, aren't being manned by people who have the power to detain you for simply being weird. (Or, to quote the municipal code, loitering in a place "at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals." How's that for descretionary?) The police can, and to a certain degree are expected to, detain you for simply not bahaving the same as everyone else. And let's not forget the more serious laws that you may have unknowingly broken. (And remember, ignorance of the law is no excuse - in fact, there are some cases where being intentionally deceived by another isn't an excuse either.)

The answer to this isn't to expect the police to dial it back a notch. It's for us to start going through and culling out laws. As near as I can tell, I don't live in a jurisdiction with a misprision ordinance, so I'm not breaking that particular law. But then again, I'm not completely conversant in the legal structures of King County or the State of Washington, so maybe if they looked, they'd have me on something else. (By the way, some of you Occupy types may want to watch out.) When our laws are too long and complicated for you to actually be able to know which ones you've followed and which ones you've blown off in the past six hours or so, people start to become twitchy about the whole "people who are abiding by the law," thing, because they start to understand that they don't actually fit into that category. Even if they don't understand exactly why until a police officer shows up at their door with a photograph.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

But It Says So Right Here

"Based on something he read online, an Oklahoma state senator has introduced a bill..."

And it just goes downhill from there.

Personally, I suspect that this guy is actually super-deep cover; perhaps a gerbil or a cabbage masquerading as a human. Or maybe this is simply a particularly convoluted scheme by Plankton to get his hands on the Krabby Patty formula. It's hard to believe that one could get into high school, let alone a legislature, without having figured out that you shouldn't take at face value everything you read on the internet, especially those things that push your emotional buttons. To borrow a phrase, if your immediate reaction is "Must. Denounce. Now," that's the time when getting an independent verification of the facts is most important. After all, it's the people who you're convinced would never lead you astray who you're most likely to allow to lead you astray.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Believe With Me

I've already written about the somewhat raw deal that people of various faiths find themselves confronting whenever they deal with people who don't believe the same things that they do.

But the fact that Washington State is moving ever closer to legalizing same-sex marriage is giving a certain segment of the Christian community the opportunity to demonstrate that they, too, can seem to forget that not everyone else the world, or even the state, thinks in the same way that they do.

One common lament that has been making the rounds lately is that, "God defined marriage and it is not for man to redefine." Another is: "It is a very sad day when we get to choose which one of God's laws we will obey and which ones we will choose not to." But if one is Wiccan, or practices Shinto, what does it matter what the Judeo-Christian-Moslem god defines marriage as? Why should anyone who doesn't follow an Abrahamic religion or one of its offshoots care? But more importantly, why should they agree that religious strictures from faiths they don't follow are valid reasons for civil and/or criminal legislation? After all, if Christian legislators in Tennessee can convince themselves that practicing Sharia law should be punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment, why would they think anyone else wants to have to follow religious laws from faiths they don't practice? Or religious laws that simply differ from their own understanding of the religion? After all, it's not like the dietary laws were expunged from the Bible; but you'd have a hard time codifying them into law. Hand wringing about "picking and choosing" would likely be of little use.

While "legally-mandated lip service" isn't really the correct term for it, it's one that always comes to mind. Of course a more accurate way to look at things from the point of view of believers is that "Right makes Right" - the "fact" that they are morally correct gives them the right to legislate their beliefs into laws that everyone else must follow. This is perfectly understandable, if not exactly desirable. But it veers into the odd when its presented as a perfectly straightforward reason that everyone should sign on to. Part of it, I suspect, is the idea that often comes up that deep down inside, everyone is actually a conservative Christian, or wants to be. If the Pope can maintain that the targets of forcible conversion wanted in their heart of hearts to be converted at any cost, it's not too much of a stretch to believe that everyone secretly wants to be a pew every Sunday. There's also the corollary that what we're seeing is a childish temper tantrum thrown by a willful Humanity against a parental deity - claims of disbelief are simply disingenuous attempts to get around having to follow bothersome rules. But I think that part of it is also the flip side of what many religious people themselves deal with - the idea that one's own beliefs are so self-evident that no-one can honestly see things any differently. This is aided and abetted by the somewhat homogenous nature of American society. While the United States is not exclusively Christian, it is overwhelmingly so, and so its possible to go quite some time (perhaps one's whole life) without ever actually meeting anyone who professes to be otherwise. And so it becomes much easier to assume that everyone else thinks and believes in the same way. And for many people, the whole world isn't much different than whatever community they are currently a part of - it's just bigger. Despite the fact that the continental United States is some three thousand miles from East to West, people still experience unexpected culture shock after moving a significant distance. Despite the fact that many large states have populations large enough to be decent-sized nations themselves, many Americans are taken off-guard by things that are different than the way they were used to them.

As unbelievable as some find it, however, we do not all believe alike. Therefore appeals to and expectations of a universal understanding and adherence to faith will fall on as many deaf ears as appeals to and expectations of a universal agnosticism have.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bad News

"The 24-hour blackout and adverse reaction from Internet users was over the right of business — notably Hollywood and the publishing and recording industries — to make a profit on its work, versus maintaining free and open access to the Internet."
"Internet's dark day: Anti-piracy bills take a beating" The Seattle Times, Wednesday, 18 January, 2012.
First, a question. Does anyone actually know someone who disputed the rights of businesses to make a profit, and claimed that was their reason for opposing SOPA and PIPA? I know of no such people. I suppose that they could be out there, and there are people who oppose profit-making businesses, but if it took SOPA and PIPA to get them motivated, I have news for them: the rules that allow for businesses to make a profit on their work were enacted a long time ago. That ship sailed without them.

For myself, if I had to pick two reasons why most web denizens were upset by SOPA and PIPA, and the reasons for Wednesday's protest, they would be these, the fact that the laws have the fingerprints of MPAA and RIAA lobbying efforts all over them and the lack of due process protections for the accused. (If I'm wrong on that, correct me, please.) Although I'm sure there were many other reasons, these two jump out at me, given what I've been reading online. The other reasons that the article sites for opposition ("Opponents claim the measures would stifle innovation, limit service and impel companies to monitor users.") are also true, but those are more corporate, rather than public, objections.

In portraying the anti-SOPA/PIPA protest as basically being one of Communists for a Free Internet®, the Seattle Times article violates what I've come to feel is the first rule of reporting - presenting factual information in a way that educates an audience that might be ignorant of what's actually happening. After all, if everyone already knows everything there is to know about a topic, why bother reporting on it? And if you're not going to get the facts straight, what has been gained? Any poor sod who gets into a discussion over Congress' efforts to deal with issues of media piracy and intellectual property theft and trots out the line that he read in the Times is going to be treated as at best an idiot and a worst a troll or corporate shill. When, in this case, their real crime is taking an unsourced statement (the article seems to shy away from actually asking incensed internet users why they were up in arms) and taking it as a fact.

Not being perfect myself, I don't expect perfection. But this is more than a simple error; correctly or not, it smacks of an agenda being promoted. And as much as I'm a proponent of never relying on single sources of information, when news outlets appear to be partial, they tar an entire profession. That's too high a price to pay for not bothering to get the facts. (And don't get me started about the title...)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Time For A Change?

Maybe it's about time that people started calling for a wholesale reform of intellectual property laws (including much needed clarifications), or just our system of laws in general. After all, SOPA and PIPA are not the only bad laws to be proposed. And, if passed, they won't be the only bad laws enacted.

We've become too comfortable in the fact that most of the really nasty laws that are on the books just aren't our problem, and so we ignore them. Sure, waves are made when some media outlet presents the story of the some sympathetic sod who's spending life in prison for what seems to be little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but having that one person released from prison doesn't take the law off the books, and when the person in jail strikes us as just another gang-banger, we shrug and walk away.

The reason why so much money is spent lobbying for intellectual property laws is that entire business models are based around the ability to sell an idea. Often multiple times. And the laws aren't our only worry. When Sawyer and Mann sued Thomas Edison over his light bulb, their claim of patent infringement was based on the idea that they had patented making an incandescent filament out of any fibrous or textile material. They hadn't done any experimentation to determine what material might work - they just applied for, and received a patent for any and everything that fit the bill. They lost. Today, even though the laws haven't really changed, they would have won, because the judicial climate has changed. Patents too broad to be upheld a century ago are now routinely used as weapons. And guess whose pockets the money for the litigation comes from, when Microsoft sues Apple sues HTC sues Motorola, and so on and so on? But when the risk of having a web site taken down due to some errant pop songs comes along, out come the torches and the pitchforks.

We shouldn't wait for these things to be in our collective faces to start understanding  what our laws are, and how they may be used - and for what purposes. It's a pretty safe bet that were I an unscrupulous prosecutor, I could have you put on trial right now, with the chance of a life sentence if you were convicted - without a shred of physical evidence that you'd ever committed a crime. It happens all the time in drug cases. The word a felon is enough, even if I'm going to let them out of what you're going to get for testifying against you. Oh, and by the way... Even if you could prove that I set you up - I would have immunity from prosecution.

Nice, huh?

I'm not in the business of outrage peddling, so don't feel badly if you're not ready to be up-in-arms. Besides, I wouldn't expect you to take my word for it. But the United States legal code is a very long document. And it's the things about it that we don't know that can really hurt us. And if we let it stay that way long enough, it will.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Playing The Numbers

Occupy Wall Street is being credited with starting a nationwide dialog about income inequality. Okay, I suppose. I guess I can give them that. But because I don't think that this is what they really set out to do, they didn't spark a dialog about why incomes in the United States are so unequal.

When I was growing up, my father taught me some very important lessons about work and jobs. Some of them I wish he hadn't, but a couple of them have really stuck with me due to their simplicity and obviousness.

There are two people connected to every job. The person who gives a job, and the person who gets a job. One of these is a better position to be in than the other.

There are two ways to make money from a job. You can either do something that other people can't do, or do something that other people won't do.
Sometimes, I think that people buy in too heavily to the idea of the value of work. Work, in and of itself, isn't worth all that much. People who work as field labor spend a lot of time working, and they work very hard - they don't clear all that much for their efforts. In order to advance themselves, many people in that situation are forced into a level of frugality that many Americans find completely impossible to imagine. Having enough money to save requires a remarkably low standard of living, considering the surroundings.

This is mainly because, despite the fact that many Americans find the work to be difficult, degrading and uncomfortable, farm workers are more or less a dime a dozen. The average migrant simply doesn't bring rare enough skills to the table, nor are they unique enough, to command a higher wage. The people who are making the big bucks on the other hand, often have skills that are very difficult to get. They also have a certain level of connections to people who can recommend them for high-paying jobs, but the old adage that "It's not what you know, it's who you know," has never really been as true as people have thought that it was. Closer to the truth is "It's not just what you know, it's who knows what you know." While there are always those people who park an incompetent friend or relation in a well-paying job simply to keep them out of the way, much more commonly wealthy people can display skills that the rest of us lack.

They have, to use an analogy, won a lottery, and they're reaping the rewards of that win. Sure, there are those people who claim that people who have made their fortunes invariably put in an amount of effort absolutely commensurate with their compensation, but as far as I'm concerned, the term "Just World Fallacy" exists for a reason. But this isn't to say that the people on the top have had all the luck, and left none for the rest of us. Many of us, seduced by the apparent ease with which many people seem to have made it big, spend too much of our time wishing for their talents, rather than cultivating our own. We wish that we'd won someone else's lottery, and neglect whatever prize we might have at hand. Talents, like work, are not created equal, and some people have more marketable abilities than others, and so even if everyone cultivated their talents to the fullest, there would still be a certain amount of income inequality, and as technology makes it more efficient to reach larger markets and larger audiences, the "winner take all" phenomenon that develops exacerbates the problem.

But I think that one of the issues that Occupy Wall Street railed against, even if it never articulated it, was the fact that many of us have become interchangeable, and thus, disposable. And in a world where many of us do not directly create the things that we need to survive, being just another face in an endless sea of people is a one-way ticket to a life of poverty. When Elizabeth Warren gave her talk on "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class," she pointed out that it now takes a college degree to land a middle-class job, where once it only required a high-school diploma. And as college attendance rates push upwards, it's likely to eventually become the case that one will need a graduate degree to stand out enough to command a respectable salary. (On the flip side, the high cost of college and graduate school carries with it a real risk of creating a permanent class divide, with a split between those who can afford the skills required to command high wages, and those who cannot.)

Of course, this also leaves doing things that others won't do. For instance, I always heard, growing up, that garbage men made a fairly decent living, for the work that they did. It was the stereotypical "dirty job" that no-one wanted. But as another example, it's pretty easy to come by "good enough" photographs of everyday people, places and things, and this is really undermining the profession of photography. But the guy who flies back and forth over an airport to get just the right aerial shot of a jumbo jet taking off or treks into the back country for a week and a half to come back with photographs of animals that just can't be seen anywhere else? They're going to be able to command high prices for their work, simply by virtue of going above and beyond.

But neither of these concepts fit neatly into the idea of "merit" as we've often been taught to think of it, and perhaps that explains why there is so much discontent with the way things work. We've been sold, as a society, a somewhat false view of the way things actually work, while the people who see through it go on to make themselves wealthy. But if that's the case, it suggests a starting point for a way out.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Wait... Who Are "They," Again?

When people refer to "Them/They" or to "the Establishment," am I the only one who wonders just who they're talking about - and if they're taking résumés?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Dearth of Nations

For what is a nation?
Is it not a people of a common ancestry, culture, and language who worship the same God, revere the same heroes, cherish the same history, celebrate the same holidays, share the same music, poetry, art, literature, held together, in Lincoln’s words, by “bonds of affection ... mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone”?
If that is what a nation is, can we truly say America is still a nation? The European and Christian core of our country is shrinking. The birth rate of our native born has been below replacement level for decades. By 2020, deaths among white Americans will exceed births, while mass immigration is altering forever the face of America.
Pat Buchanan
Maybe I'm just dim, but it seems by this standard that America never WAS a nation. The extermination of the native population was incomplete, non-Christian/non-white people were forcibly brought in to combat a shortage of labor for manpower-intensive cash crops, and immigration has consistently come from pretty much every nation on Earth, to the point where it is said there are municipalities in the United States that have larger ethnic populations than any other city on Earth, including those in the nations of origin. But even if the entire population could trace direct descent to the crews of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria (and there had been women aboard these ships) the United States would fail the common ancestry and culture tests, and quite possibly the religion test as well.

Therefore, it seems unlikely that Buchanan is actually looking to any actual period of American history with this lament (especially not the mid-to-late 1880s) but to yet another of the fictional halcyon days that many people long for. Their very fictitiousness is an advantage - never having actually existed, they are not freighted with the flaws and imperfections that all actual historical timeframes are saddled with. They are wonderfully blank slates, upon which one is able to write whatever fantasies come to mind. And this is what makes them so compelling. They can be the very picture of just the perfection one wants, utterly devoid of any of the complications, messiness and compromises that reality imposes upon the world as it actually exists.

Such fictitious pasts also serve another purpose, in that they become proofs that blows to national pride, economic hardship and social dissonance are all the result of the Other - those who ancestry, culture, language and religion are foreign. All Bad Things were imported from without. And in this, imagined histories become havens from the slings and arrows of outrageous reality by virtue of allowing for a retreat into victimhood. As the many people who prevent one's perfect nation from being created are surely not going anywhere, their stubborn refusal to be deported (or in extreme cases, exterminated) provides a neverending supply of scapegoats, upon whom can blamed whatever new ills tomorrow (or dinnertime) might bring; and their presence can be construed as a deliberate affront - the temerity of people who would rather despoil Paradise than remain in their own justly benighted lands. Even those whose bodies littered the battlefields and lie in patriot graves are unredeemed by their bravery if their descendants are not properly invisible.

By the same token, the fact that the Other prevents the imagined past from ever becoming real means that a similarly imagined future may be dreamed of, but never need be tested. One need never learn how bonds of affection or mystic chords of memory will fare against the temptation to assault, rape, steal from and murder one's countrymen, as no nation is pure enough that some unwarranted mixing cannot be blamed. And thus the very people whom it is imagined create the need for a sanctuary are the ones conscripted to holding open its doors.

It's convenient to wonder where such ideas come from, but it doesn't take much pondering to see how a simple world would seem better than the one we have, which can seem complex to the point of being willfully and maliciously chaotic. Do what you will, but the world is always the greater force, and at times we seem ill-equipped to deal with it. The idea, that were it not for dangerous ethnic groups and sinister elites, that many of today's problems would never have come to pass is often an attractive one. But it undermines, rather than enhances, one's ability to meet the world on its terms. Which is a shame, because the world rarely deigns to play the rules that we wish it to. Couching our complaints about that fact in bigotry simply adds insult (although to whom is sometimes an open question) to futility.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Let's Us and Them Fight

If you're dependent on government money to make your life comfortable, you're going to feel pain. If you are an American who believes that you can stand on your own two feet, this is going to be a renaissance.
New Hampshire State Representative Seth Cohn - (R) Merrimack
This is the problem that political candidates for office have once they become popular - anyone who claims to espouse your philosophy (in this case, Representative Ron Paul's) can stand up and spout off about it on national radio. And they can often do so in ways that are singularly divisive. I suspect that if you asked Representative Paul about his views on this, he'd be somewhat more conciliatory. After all, if he wins the Republican nomination, he has to run in the general election, and telling the nation that anyone who depends on the government that their lives are about to start sucking will earn him no end of defections to the Democrats (or simply staying home), after all, when a natural disaster strikes, telling people "well, you should either have insurance or enough cash on hand to rebuild from the ground up" is unlikely to be a winner.

But this is part of American politics, especially during primary season, and one that's unlikely to go away any time soon. Pitting "us versus them" (while being somewhat vague about just who "us" and "them" are) is always a sure-fire vote getter. Nevermind that if it's done poorly, it gets just as many, if not more, votes for the other side.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Shady Dealings

“It is the classic lesser-of-two-evils rationale, the key being that it explicitly recognizes that both sides are 'evil': meaning it is not a Good v. Evil contest but a More Evil v. Less Evil contest. But that is not the discussion that takes place because few progressives want to acknowledge that the candidate they are supporting — again — is someone who will continue to do these evil things with their blessing.”
Glen Greenwald “Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies
"Why Progressives?" I wonder. Haven't Conservatives engaged is just such lesser-of-two-evils thinking, and then told themselves that the "lesser evil" was actually a good? Haven't Moderates given evil things their blessing in return for things that were more important to them? Why should Progressives be any less susceptible to the psychology of Faustian bargains and denial than anyone else? I mean, wasn't this just as much an issue during the Bush Administration? Or was there some strain of Conservatism that found an expansion of government, the demolition of civil liberties and massive deficit spending to be a feature, not a bug? (Although according to one radio news story I heard on the way home, Rick Santorum seemed to be of the opinion that dumping cash into the Money Pit that was Iraq was a perfectly Conservative thing to do, so maybe they didn't have that much of a conflict, after all.)

It seems to me that the United States has never really had a problem with making people unlike us, that we don't like and/or live in faraway places bear the costs for whatever our political class as chosen to bribe us with today. The Atomic Bomb was dropped on Japan not to end the war - the Japanese already knew they were boned - but to force them into unconditional surrender by blowing segments of the civilian population to smithereens and convincing them that we were prepared to annihilate the entire nation - because we found the potential alternatives, a high death toll among American soldiers or a peace with Japanese conditions attached, equally unacceptable. And in the post war period, the United States was very clear about the fact that an anti-American democracy would not be tolerated if a pro-American dictatorship was available. But how many candidates for office ran on platforms of the wholesale slaughter of civilians or the suppression of democracy in exchange for saving American lives or American interests? Once a successful bid for office signaled the end of a need for high-minded rhetoric, people did "what had to be done," the American public said "better them than us" and we about our business.

Perhaps Mr. Greenwald writes these columns every so often, pillorying different segments of the American populace in turn, and I just never found about them until his sort of endorsement of Representative Ron Paul as a Progressive's best bet during a campaign season generated a lot of buzz for this particular piece. But if this is the first, I hope it's the first of many. We've made a series of deals with the Devil over the years, and more are coming. We should be reminded of them regularly.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Safe For Passivity

When I've spoken with people who feel that it's important to "get the money out of politics," it doesn't normally take very long to maneuver them into getting to the actual point - protecting voters they view as less sophisticated than themselves from harmful political messages and candidates. While I understand the intent, I think an effort to do something that perhaps we don't really want to do - namely making representative democracy safe for people for whom representative democracy is most demonstrably unsafe.

If "government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth;" at some level the people are going to have to be active participants in their government. Apathy and passivity just aren't good things to have in a republic. I, for my part, am of the school that says that incentives matter - the more you give people a reason (or, quite frankly the necessity) to be active participants in their government, they more active, engaged and educated they become. When you dial back the need, people re-purpose the time they would have spent on other pursuits, and it becomes hard to get that time back later.

It sucks, because the extra effort that I'm asking that people expend in keeping up with government translates to a direct hit to their standard of living - either they have less time to work, or they have less leisure time. And when you look at people who have enough money that they can simple buy their way out of having to make that choice, it all becomes a pretty in-your-face reminder of how unequal our society has become. But I don't really see any other viable way around it. It's tempting to limit people's ability to participate, either directly or by proxy. But then will come an enforcement mechanism, and that enforcement mechanism will be VERY powerful - after all, it will have a high level of control over what messages are available to the public. If it becomes captured by one faction or another, the sorts of issues that we're dealing with now will seem like child's play.

Our government now is driven by lobbying for a very simple reason. Lobbyists promise money to get messages out. And our society has shifted from evaluating the content and the origin of a message to evaluating the ubiquity and slickness of a message, and so more money buys more effective messaging. But just because someone can put up the biggest, splashiest billboard doesn't mean that I should simply do as it says. And that, in the end, is how to remove the money from politics. Enough of the public has to be involved enough that one can't simply shout one's way to victory, regardless of the message. It won't be a sure thing. There's no reasonable way to get complete participation, but I suppose it's like vaccines. Get enough people onboard, and herd immunity will take care of the rest.

It certainly can't hurt.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Praying For Peace


I was puttering around on Slate, when I came across an old Human Nature column from 2005. In it, William Saletan recounts a meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics concerning "legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia in Oregon and the Netherlands." It's the kind of interesting and thought-generating column that I so enjoyed reading back in the day.

If you're interested, you can read the column yourself, so I'm not going to bore you with an attempt to recapitulate the substance of it here. But one of the very interesting points that Mr. Saletan deals with is that of autonomy and control. Seeing parallels in the abortion debate, he warns against "deny[ing] autonomy in the name of protecting it," - blocking a person's attempts to make certain choices, under the idea that no-one would ever freely make THAT choice. (Not mentioned is the next step, in which people cast certain choices as indicative of some sort of threat to autonomy - in other words, the very fact that you have made a certain choice indicates coercion or mental distress or defect, and therefore, your autonomy must be suspended until you have been returned to "right thinking.")

During the column, Mr. Saletan brings up three ways that people have used or advocated to steer people clear of wanting to end their own lives. One) Stalling. Hospitals simply ignore laws that require compliance with a patient's wish to be taken off artificial respiration, until such time as the need for same has passed. Two) Moralizing. One of the council members favors an approach that tells patients "that while it's natural to wish for death, they ought not act on that wish." Three) Improved (and improved information about, and access to) palliative care. "Once you show that suffering can be relieved without killing, almost nobody chooses killing." When the Netherlands began to improve hospice and palliative care, the suicide rate dropped.

Bit if it's true that "No suicide prevention measure for the elderly would be more effective than good end-of-life care," as one council member put it, what's the best way of promoting good end-of-life care? Perhaps paradoxically, my first thought is the broader legalization of assisted suicide. Of the three ways discussed to prevent the suicides of the grievously injured and gravely ill, one of them costs money and requires specially trained people to be effective. If you can simply stall people or base laws on moral strictures that prevent suicide, where is the incentive to improve the palliative care infrastructure?

But, alas, the real world proves me wrong. Legalized abortion has done little to get staunch pro-life activists on board with initiatives for better prevention of unwanted pregnancies. People who feel that you have no right to something often have a hard time accepting the idea that desirable alternatives to that something should be advanced. Look at the case of the Bush and then Obama administrations dealing with North Korea and/or Iran - in neither case does the administration want to make it worth Pyongyang's or Tehran's while to go along; instead they both insist that the governments are acting illegitimately and seem to fear a future pattern of blackmail.

One of the council members cited an Oregon study that found that patients who seek assisted suicide when it is illegal have "an inordinate need for control." But I doubt that they're the only ones. Stalling and moralizing both seek to exercise control over the patient. Perhaps the issue of control needs to take a back seat, leaving more room for people to have options.

Old Acquaintance Be Forgot

Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see you there.

Have we met? Oh, you're 2012? What happened to 2011? He did? Really? So soon. Where do they all go?

Thanks, I'd always wondered about that. Well, are you sure he's not coming back?

Oh. I guess they never do, do they?

Yeah, we had some unfinished business. It wouldn't help if I said I owed him a hundred bucks, would it? Yeah, I thought not.

No, not really. But I guess if 2011's moved on, there's no chance of getting a hold of 2000 or 1992, is there?

Well, I should have done the entire early 90s differently. I made a lot of mistakes back then. Too bad I couldn't have gotten paid for screwing things up. I'd be a rich man by now.

What did I do wrong? Do you have a year? Oh... crap - I shouldn't have said that. I'm really sorry - that was insenstive of me.

Why thank you, 2012, you're quite gracious. And I really am sorry... I wasn't thinking. They're all out of reach, huh? A pity, that. 1992 was good, you know. Are you sure you can't put me in touch with her? Just for a few minutes? I only want to make a couple of -

Of course. Rules are rules. Story of my life.

What? I'm sorry. I was daydreaming. Have you ever met 2003? He was pretty cool. I was just hoping to run into him again.

Yes, yes, you're absolutely right. I don't mean to ignore you, it's just that I'm -

Yes, exactly. Living in the past. Well, hoping to, anyway. But you're right. That is unfair to you. Let's try this again. Hello, 2012. I'm pleased to meet you.

Hmmm.... You're right. We'd better get started. There's plenty to be done, and 12 months really isn't that long a time. Although I didn't think that 1975 would ever - OW!

No, no, you're absolutely right. One at a time. One at a time.