Sunday, June 24, 2012

Good Fences

Zoning is intended—say its proponents—to prevent nuisances from arising. But when zoning itself becomes the nuisance, and when it gets in the way of people using their own property how they’d like--and exactly no one is made better off, save for the bureaucrats who make and enforce the ordinances--then that piece of zoning must fall.
I Say Tomato, You Say No - Reason Magazine
This ignores one not-so-minor point. The whole idea of zoning laws is to prevent negative externalities. And they do this precisely by getting in the way of people using their own property how they'd like. It's all fine and good for Reason Magazine to raise the issue of people being unable to grow tomato plants or raise animals on their land, but this conveniently ignores the people who have plants over 12 inches tall on their land because they refuse to mow their lawns or who construct sheds in their front yards, and then let them fall into disrepair.

Rather than accuse local officials of being pompous blowhards who have an intellectual, effete and snobbish problem with rugged self-sufficiency, let's examine the whole idea of baking social conventions against nuisances and other threats to property values into law. If I own a property, and you live next to me, should I be required by law to look out for your property values? Is that really the only means by which neighbors can come to accommodation? And if such laws are going to be put in place, is it reasonable to write them so broadly that the onus is always on me to prove that what I'm doing won't chase away buyers for your property?

It's easy, too easy in fact, to get caught up in the rhetoric of "overreaching government" and "liberty." But this is really about how ironclad the social contract should be, given that we've never adopted a formalized means to accepting or rejecting it. We also need to address a culture that has turned housing and land from a consumer good into an investment asset. This one change gives people an incentive to meddle in the way their neighbors use their land, as something as simple as failure to adhere to an arbitrary understanding of home aesthetics can mean tens of thousands of dollars in paper losses to nearby landowners.

Like it or not, we don't live in splendid isolation, far from anyone who might suffer some of the downsides of our personal brands of homekeeping. Because of that, we need to have an understanding of how to balance individual freedoms with life in communities. Cherry-picking cases sympathetic to one side of that equation doesn't foster that understanding.

(HT to Chris Adams)

The Way It Is

I was out with my camera one day, and I ran into a man who was out with his camera. We both used the same brand, and so fell to chit-chatting about features and capabilities of different models that we used and/or were interested in. After a couple of minutes, he took me off guard with the contention that the company used sweatshop labor to make their products.

I bit confused, I asked: "Well, if the company is using unfair labor practices, why do you buy their products?"

"Oh," he replied, "It's not really a bad thing. I'm kind of glad they do, actually."

Now, I was really confused, so I asked him to explain, half expecting to hear the standard defense of a crappy, possibly exploitative job over having no job at all.

But instead he said, "Well, if the company paid its workers living rages, only wealthy people would be able to afford the equipment. And I don't want only the elites to have nice things."

You know, it's one of those things that we hear often, that capitalism thrives by exploiting the poverty of others. And so it's one of those things that people take on faith, especially those who feel that the whole idea of capitalism is immoral and/or unjust. But it's another thing to hear someone come out an say it, especially when they put it as taking advantage of someone else's poverty so that they don't feel so poor themselves. We've become accustomed to the idea that we've allowed ourselves to become blind to the injustices of the world, or that we engage in self-deception and pretend the problems don't exist. And so when you encounter someone who flat lays it on the line, it's surprising. Maybe we need to change that.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Question

I attended a Roman Catholic (Benedictine, to be precise) high school, and like every other person who has ever come within ten miles of such a place, eventually found myself in the middle of the age old debate over what has come to be called Heinz's dilemma, presented here in the variation that Lawrence Kohlberg uses:

Heinz's wife was near death, and her only hope was a drug that had been discovered by a pharmacist who was selling it for an exorbitant price. The drug cost $20,000 to make, and the pharmacist was selling it for $200,000. Heinz could only raise $50,000 and insurance wouldn't make up the difference. He offered what he had to the pharmacist, and when his offer was rejected, Heinz said he would pay the rest later. Still the pharmacist refused. In desperation, Heinz considered stealing the drug. Would it be wrong for him to do that?
Now, in a lot of ways the answer that you come up with is immaterial - there are arguments for either answer to the question. And when you add religion into the mix, things can really get out of hand, especially when people start looking for ways to prove their piety.

But as I've grown older, it occurs to me that there is a different way to look at the dilemma. At the base of the dilemma is a simple question: "When does a need for something become a right to that thing?" Although it's a simple question on its face it lacks a simple answer. Additionally, unless the answer is either "always" or "never," the answer stands a very good chance of not scaling well. Which can be problematic, given that the modern welfare state is built upon ideas of how to answer this question.

However, it can be helpful to boil the question down, as it removes some of the "superfluous" elements of the dilemma. Indeed, part of many people's reasoning that Heinz would be justified in stealing the drug is that in steadfastly demanding a 900% markup, cash up front, the pharmacist comes across as a greedy prick who's willing to watch a woman die through a simple unwillingness to either settle for a whopping 60% margin or extend credit to a desperate man. Rents like that tend to dissolve sympathy for businesspeople. It also removes some of the more creative ways around Heinz's predicament, such as surreptitiously copying the formula for the drug, and offering a rival pharmacist the $50,000 to whip up a batch.

While this is a question that I've been asking myself for years, I've never come up with an answer that didn't, at some point, stray into ethical absurdity. Which, I suppose is the point behind ethics. There are never any answers that are always right. No matter how badly you want there to be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Is It The Shoes?

Finally succumbing after a brave battle with insanity, someone at Addidas came up with what I can only describe as a crime against footwear - the "JS Roundhouse Mids." Because these shoes were supposedly "so hot you lock your kicks to your ankles," they were slated to come with (and I kid you not) "prison orange shackles to wrap around your ankles," connected to the shoes by just as garishly prison orange plastic chains. I can only imagine that the members of the focus group that Addidas convinced to give them the thumbs up on these are now in rehab. And the shoes themselves will likely never hit the stores, given the reaction on Addidas' Facebook page.

But there is also this:

"The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution is offensive, appalling and insensitive. Removing the chains from our ankles and placing them on our shoes is no progress.
These slave shoes are odious and we as a people should be called to resent and resist them."
Reverend Jesse Jackson
I hadn't realized that the good Reverend had taken up drinking.

But in all seriousness, it is this sort of knee-jerk outrage, designed to root out and react to racism under every rock and plant, that is among the worst enemies of the American Black community. Yes, there are racists in the world, but there are also just plain idiots and assholes. Being unwilling to make that disctiction is not helpful. Back in the late 1980s Reverend Jacskon run for President of the United States of America. It was, of course, an effort doomed from the start, in no small part because of the toxic baggage of racial animosity that the Reverend Jackson brought along during his "run" for the presidency. Reverend Jackson personifies the school of thought that sees anything short of the complete eradication of racism as no progress, and anything that can be considered even tangentially related to the history of Blacks in America to be the direct result of someone's ideas on race. But this outlook has become less and less credible as time goes on. Leaving aside the sheer ridiculousness of equating a dubious design in footwear to the practice of slavery in the United States, this constant hammering on the idea that a vast conspiracy of racists schemes to return the world to a social structure that passed more than a century ago simply drives a wedge between groups to no real advantage. And to the degree that minority groups are often thought of as having "leaders" prominent members of the community who seem to have taken leave of their senses tend to cast a negative light on entire communities. While the Reverend Jackson was certainly a force to reckoned with during the days of the civil rights movement, he now seems like a doddering old man, a respected Wolf-hunter in his day, who has taken to crying "Wolf," simply so that we won't forget what the word sounds like, or that he once challenged the animals on a regular basis. But we don't need the ghosts of the past kept alive simply for their own sake. We need people who will focus on the real problems that still exist, and offer workable solutions.

While racism still exists in the world at large, and the United States, sometimes, stupid is simply stupid. It's worthwhile for us to recognize that, and call out people who don't, rather than perpetuate a conflict that could be put mostly to bed.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Let's Make A Deal

"Voters need not choose between God and mammon. Instead, they tend to see their money, the market, and the economy as a reflection of their God."
How Your View of God Shapes Your View of the Economy
This should come as a surprise to no-one who has spent a decent amount of time in the company of, or speaking with, people on the conservative end of American Christianity. If you've ever read or heard someone say: "If the nation gets right with God, then God will take care of the economy," then you've encountered that strain of Judeo-Christian/Moslem religiosity that believes that God has control over economic issues (among others), and, in effect, uses the prosperity of the national economy as both carrot and stick.

But the idea of an Authoritative God (a deity that is both engaged and judgmental) is not limited to economics - many a pastor or evangelist has made headlines (and/or earned people's wrath) by claiming that other disasters have been triggered or allowed by a God angry that the United States has embraced the "sinful." And many others have said the same while remaining underneath the radar. Whether it's the idea that expanding feminist ideas caused a ship captain to abandon his passengers during a shipwreck, or that homosexual sexuality "is a spiritual cause of earthquakes," the idea that it our relationship with the divine that drives world events is not rare.

And if you credit the idea that nearly one-third of the population of the United States believes that the path to national wealth and prosperity travels straight through propitiating an activist and critical deity (and one who believes in collective punishments), you can be assured that their views will find their way into policy, even if only as lip service. While it may be possible to believe that no members of Congress share the belief in an Authoritative God, the idea that no one in Congress, especially the House of Representatives, represents a constituency where believers are a force, if not the majority, stretches credulity. There are simply too many votes to leave them on the table.

In the end, patience may turn out to be the only option. Change may have to come on its own. There is precedent for this. Once upon a time "being right with God" meant, for any number of people, shunning the divorced and ensuring that "the races" did not mix. We now consider such beliefs to be on the sketchy side of quaint. So it's not unreasonable to presume that sooner or later, only a handful of Americans will think that they must drive a religiously-driven social agenda at all to be able to live in a prosperous nation.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bizzy, Bizzy

Thursday, June 14, 2012

All That They Can Be

A chair is still a chair,
Even when there's no one sitting there.
Burt Bacharach and Hal David "A House Is Not a Home"
Catalyst for maturity.
Sign of domesticity.
End of selfishness and self-absorption
Meaning or fulfillment.
Evidence of superior morality.
Discharge of a responsibility.
Something one owes one's parents.
Gateway to true adulthood.
Immortality via a family name.
Source(s) of endless and unconditional love.
A contribution to the future viability of society, the social contract and the social safety net.
Affirmation and validation.
The purpose of one's sexuality and/or gender expression.
Potential source(s) of labor and/or income.
Something to be loved and cared for that that needs it.
A way of being like everyone else.
A ticket to new opportunities.
A central part of one's identity.
The missing piece of an incomplete life.

A young person, especially between infancy and youth.

That last piece, pulled from Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, is hard enough, I think. Why must we freight being a child with any one, let alone several, of these other things? In reading through the comments attached to the various "No Kids for Me, Thanks:" essays on Slate, I assembled a list, which you may have just read, of some of the things that people attribute to their children, along with some old standbys.

Perhaps it's because I spent a few years in a past life working with children, but I don't see children in this way. They are, to me, simply young people, and one's offspring or adopted family. To borrow a shopworn cliché, they are what they are, and nothing else.Viewed in this light, they are simply another life experience, to be had or not as it suits you, no different than a trip to Hawaii, a really good bowl of phở from a nice restaurant or having a dog. I admit that it's unromantic. But then again, I have never been a very good romantic.

We often to seek to weigh down mundane items with meaning that they do not intrinsically carry, and sometimes cannot live up to. Everything choice one makes, from what cellular telephone one carries to what car one drives, is supposed to do some of the work of telling other people who we are. And there is pressure to not only buy into this, but to pretend that the judgements that we come to are objective views of reality, and that any one of sufficient intelligence and sensitivity would come to the exact same conclusion. But, to misquote Freud, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Because things often have their hands full with what they are.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Of the People...

Democracies often serve their people poorly, because they are rarely any more far-sighted and thoughtful than the people themselves. And representative government is no better than any other public institution when it comes to ignoring the prejudices and biases of the bulk of its citizenry - it is perhaps far worse, because it is by parroting back those prejudices and biases, along with the hopes, fears, dreams and desires of the populace that one is elected into office. Even the crusader who finds the current system stupid and intolerable has no choice but to publicly pantomime support of it to have any hope of election, as long as it is the one the people wish to see enacted.

In the end, almost everyone's perfect government is a dictatorship in one way or another, because everyone understands that the limits they would seek to impose upon others are just and necessary (Even anarchists would bar the people from creating too extensive a government for themselves, regardless of their wishes.), as people just cannot be trusted to understand what is best for them. And what better proof of this is there than the fact that they choose to live under a government that is so wrong-headed and when given the choice, avoid electing the people who would make much-needed reforms?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Flip Side

"It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. That would be an extension of pragmatism beyond endurance. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence. The defense of religion is full of such logical imbecilities."
H. L. Mencken.
On the flip side of this, it is often argued that religion is dangerous because it makes men act in a way that would seem otherwise reprehensible. But, even if this were true, it would not be a proof that religion is false. (Furthermore, it plays into the hands of those who are inclined to argue that religiosity {typically Christianity} is mankind's natural state, and that non-religiosity is an act of rebellion or rejection rather than worldview of its own.) Which leads me to wonder why I so often hear people bringing up points of religious morality that they find distasteful, or similarly, reprehensible acts on the part of believers when they discuss why they disbelieve in religion. If the expectation is that the fact that religion can make men good does not prove the truth of religion, the fact that it can make men bad cannot then be a refutation of it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

So... What Happens If...

One of Dalton Conley’s more whimsical solutions to this impasse (Should a man be responsible for supporting a baby he didn’t want?), in the conversation we had about it, was that people should download an app, a sort of contract before having sex, in which they agree to what they would do if a baby were conceived. This seems impractical, as well as anti-romantic and anti-aphrodisiac. There are some things that are better left not talked about, and what you would do if you accidentally conceived a child seems like it might be one of them.
Katie Roiphe "Unexpected Pregnancy, Morality, and the Law" Slate Magazine, Friday, 8 June, 2012
This is, I submit, screamingly incorrect. What you would do if you accidentally conceived a child during a casual sexual encounter is perhaps the most important topic to talk about. (Depending on the circumstances, it may or may not outrank an honest discussion of STDs. Especially given the consequences. (Of course, this presupposes that both sides of the equation are going to be honest. Not being the sort who believes that someone who is capable of extra-marital sex must be complete devoid of morality, it seems to me that this is a reasonable possibility.) The idea that Ms. Roiphe puts forward, that it is more important to have a fling than ruin the mood by actually being adult enough to understand what you might be getting yourself into, strikes me as being symptomatic of one of the problems that we have in the modern United States: the idea that adulthood sucks, and is something to be gotten away from or put off as long as possible, rather than embraced. Doing things that may have serious consequences without regard for those consequences is something that many children can only get away with because there is an adult around who is (in many cases) legally obligated to take the fall. In return for that unenviable position, parents are given a certain level of flat-out authority over their children. Being allowed out from under that authority is normally predicated on demonstrating that one can appreciate the consequences of ones actions, and (reasonably) appropriately judge risks.

It seems odd to think that we should jettison the chance to ask ourselves if something is worth the risks, just to preserve the alleged romance of a one-night stand.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I'm finding it difficult to work up any real enthusiasm for the November presidential election. I've been somewhat loosely following presidential politics for somewhat more than a decade now, and the one conclusion that I've come to is that whomever is in the White House only matters around the margins. Despite people constantly telling me that I'm better off because this person is President or I'm screwed because that person has been elected, when I look at the events that have happened in my life, and trace the decision trees back, I always find much more direct causes than the outcome of the last election - for President, for Congress or for dogcatcher, for that matter.

It doesn't help that I live in a solidly Blue state. Not because of the whole "any vote except for a Democrat doesn't count" thing, but because no-one's really interested in campaigning here. Sure, we'll see both President Obama and Governor Romney come to town - there's too much money in the area for them not to show up and put on their dog-and-pony shows. But the President's people take the state for granted, and the challenger's campaign has written it off as a loss.

So campaign season won't be particularly interesting, and the outcome won't really be noticeable. On the other hand, I'm learning more about political philosophy than I knew before, as I listed to pitches for (currently) hopeless third-party efforts.

Monday, June 4, 2012

An Irritated Rant

Today, the Blog is dedicated to Things Aaron Hates.

I'm tired of hearing people complain that we live in a police state where your free speech is censored to serve the interests of the "wealthy" and "powerful," when what's really happening is that they're miffed that they weren't given a loud enough bullhorn that people have to pay attention to them. It's even more annoying when they press into my hands a list of terms that they want me to Google as proof that free speech is dead.

"No one is silenced because a single outlet declines to publish him; silencing occurs when that outlet (or any other) is forbidden by the state to publish him on pain of legal action; and that is also what censorship is."
Stanley Fish ("The Free-Speech Follies" The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 June, 2003)
But this is not to say that we live in some sort of paradise, where there is no conceivable threat that someone in a position of authority will use their power against you wrongly. After all, a certain level of unaccountability it baked into the very definition of power. If you can't abuse it, it's not really power.
"The origin of a police state in this country, I believe, is this: We gradually exchange a rights-based system, in which governmental power is limited by law, for a paternalistic one, in which we may all be arrested for one thing or another, but authorities forebear from doing so, or intruding in our lives, until they subjectively brand us 'bad guys.'"
Ben Rosenfeld ("In order to feel secure, are we throwing away our freedom?" San Fransisco Chronicle, 14 November, 2005)
But in the end, the responsibility always lies with us. Where else can it lie? It is our constant quest for security that drives us to allow for greater and greater powers of government to punish those who threaten us. The War on Terror, for all of its high-minded rhetoric and talk of bringing democracy and freedom to places on the other side of the world, was really about the quest to destroy two frightening bogeymen, and lobotomize the nations in which they resided into becoming faithful enough friends of the United States that they would police their own people for signs of the sort of angry nationalism that we used to call people heroes for displaying. The sad truth of a downward slide into totalitarianism is that governments rarely need to march troops on dead of night to steal freedoms. The populace can almost be entrusted to sell them out from underneath their neighbors for a modicum of security. Or, worse yet, the illusion of security.
"The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who Is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost invariably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And if he is not romantic personally, he is apt to spread discontent among those who are."
H. L. Mencken
It doesn't matter what the prevailing government of the day is. It's genially broken at best, and at worst it's the single biggest enemy to nearly each and every person who lives under it but is not a party to it. But no matter where you look, you will not find a hatchery, where the politicians, soldiers and bureaucrats are spawned. And despite the ease of looking to our neighbors for the culprits, for many of us, the guilty party stares back us every time we look into a mirror. I don't care how how draconian and totalitarian a state is - on some level it exists because its people want it to exist. People tolerate bad when they fear worse.

The world is ephemeral. If you could wait long enough, it would cease to be, along with everything that we understand to be mighty and important. If everything must end someday, only our fear of someday being tomorrow is what stands between us, and the world we claim to want.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Vote Cthulhu

The problem in American politics isn't that we vote for the lesser evil (partisans staying home on Election Day, and swing voters casting a ballot for the person they've heard the fewest bad things about). Voting for the lesser evil is a symptom.

The problem in American politics is that we've given up on the idea of voting for the greater good.