28 September 2009

censorship, hysteria, and what the fuck?

SNL is still on the air?

I think the points made there are worth restating/rephrasing.
1) We use so many euphemisms for "fuck" already, what's the difference?
2) If there were adults watching SNL by choice at midnight, it should not be our business to police the language and content that they hear. If they don't want it, change the fucking channel.
3) Every other developed country in the world is laughing at our prudish natures concerning sex and language. With good reason.
4) It's not like SNL was exactly shining through with a clean image prior to this that one verbal slip was going to ruin and for which they should hold someone accountable.

For my own points: I have no idea who this is. I don't care. We should not be trying to use the social norms from the 1950s to govern our entertainment choices in the 21st century. Nor should we be trying to use norms ostensibly established for the sake of the children to govern choices made nominally by adults instead. Grow up.

As for the hysteria portion. I became recently involved in a brief spat over the murder of a census worker in Kentucky. For those that weren't familiar, it's a grisly scene. But I immediately saw people leaping into the fray and declaring that this was the work of the Becks and the Bachmann's of the political world. That this was the whirlwind they have been trying to call down. Now despite the facts that I would agree they've been trying to call down a whirlwind, and that I tend to disagree on almost every point with conservative commentators and find their methods distasteful and disreputable even hateful, I haven't seen that this will be shown to be a connection. My immediate reaction on hearing the story was "huh, it's in Eastern Kentucky..". It was not "what did Glenn Beck do this time". Most politics are local. There is a tendency to presume that the larger offensive characters are global in their effect. But I'd have to say that the population of Minnesota would be hard pressed to identify Michelle Bachmann as their own Senator in a large quantity. And Minnesota is a fairly well educated state. I seriously doubt the people of Eastern Kentucky have any idea who the hell she is, much less care. And as for Beck's audience, while it undoubtedly includes a fair percentage of nutcases and political radicals, it doesn't have a monopoly on them. American radicalism is sort of its own movement. It's a movement which Beck is seeking to tap into for some reason, and perhaps he wants it to expand. But it's not one that anyone is the face of. I saw instead people tapping into an event that has not yet yielded a suspect from investigation and immediately citing the mid-90s cases of inciting fear and panic done by right-wing talk shows to connect the dots to the Oklahoma City bombing or the Waco raid. These were not related things. They were related perhaps in the zeitgeist, but they were otherwise unconnected. One did not cause the other. I suspect we will find the same here. That an atmosphere of violence against authority was already bred. It can be stoked, it can be expanded to other places and forums (townhalls for example), but it exists. It's not created by a few misguided forces within society. There is no vast right-wing conspiracy to create radical anarchists. I think it would be fairer to say in this case that if there is a causation chain, it is running in the other direction or at least that it has a very long tail.

It is not conversely fair to say that there is never some impact and effect from such rhetoric. I think we can agree that it is irresponsible to incite panic or to fail to actively discourage violence in accordance with the perceived erasure of the free rights of citizens. I believe there is enough evidence that such an atmosphere of poison was reborn over the abortion debate in this country and that the reaction of violence over that debate, including a couple prominent murders on either side, was stoked and fueled in part by right-wing commentary. The manner a topic is framed in, if it is not intellectually honest, consistent with the traditions of reasonable debate, or even some forgotten Christian notion of tolerance and forgiveness, will cause some grave misunderstandings. Those misunderstandings in the minds of a few already warped and dangerous people can be very unfortunate for all of us. So it is important to use a position in front of a microphone or behind a computer screen responsibly to comment upon the events around us.

I don't think "Glenn Beck"'s antics in particular are a cause. They seem more like a manifestation. I've seen plenty of nutcases in my time who expended infinitely more of their energy listening to music or seeing movies rather than listening to some radical or conservative political talk show. The amount of real influence that these particular cases have is unfortunate, and is admittedly very real and large. But it is not pervasive. It is not universal. It is not even very big relative to the rest of the country. There's something like 2-3 million regular viewers for Glenn Beck. Something like 15 million people who listen to Rush Limbaugh regularly. We can assume there are many more who are aware of their existence and will stop by occasionally (though there are many who do so in order to mock their ridiculousness). But there's still a poll out there with 40% of the population that hasn't even heard of Beck. There are plenty of people who live under a rock as far as I am concerned. And of them, some are still prepared to throw rocks at society for their own petty concerns. They don't need any extra and external motivations to achieve that end. We should not rush to presume that this external cause was the motivation without looking for the answers ourselves.

So my contention would be that the "Becks" of the world won't matter at all. There's enough of their kind and their sentiment which exists that they would be replaced by someone else if we got rid of the man in particular. Someone will feed that beast. Better to have that snake in the open. Where we can ignore it and starve it by feeding more people with reason and facts. More people of any political persuasion, not merely the Christianists and the right-wing. There is no shortage of left-wing politics that are divorced from reality either.

26 September 2009

I don't think property violence is particularly immoral

"I don't think property violence is particularly immoral" - Hmm. So people lighting your home on fire wouldn't bother you? Or is it just other people's stuff that it is okay to destroy?

I haven't figured out why people would think it is okay for stuff to be destroyed. I guess I can understand that people are annoyed at the banks. Or global trade. Or the government(s). But that doesn't really excuse running around trying to start a riot. Or smashing store front windows of businesses (a Boston Market, Quiznos, a bank, and BMW dealership). Of course, we've also got plenty of anti-riot stuff now it seems. That sonic weapon technology is starting to get either really cool or really scary. I'm not sure which. Probably the latter.

I have no problem if a bunch of environmentalists, socialists, or anarchists want to protest either (by WTO/G20 protest standards, it sounds like this was a pretty low turnout anyway). I'm not sure why they had to be engaged and dispersed. I do think it was perfectly legitimate to try to control their location of assembly. Otherwise, keep it civil if you must protest and demonstrate, and don't smash stuff. It doesn't endear me to your cause if you're violent and disrespectful. And don't go around saying afterward that it's okay to smash stuff. Presumably it's okay because you did some smashing, and nothing anybody does could possibly be "wrong" or immoral. I could be encouraged to find a hammer and some of your windows. Or your ipod. Because it's fun to smash stuff when someone thinks its okay. Think it through next time.

25 September 2009

Law. And. Order?

I actually watched part of a TV show this evening. I had it on some reliable authority that Law and Order, the popular cop-lawyer drama, was tackling the question of the torture debate and its legality. I caught the latter half of it. Given that I'm not accustomed to time and when to watch TV shows (if I miss the Daily Show/Colbert hour it's only going to be on about 4 times a day, plus appear online in a few hours for example), the fact that I missed some of it wasn't that annoying. For the most part the arguments being advanced were not that complicated, either through the pro-torture John Yoo character (it was patently obvious that's who it was, nobody else has advanced the idea that the President can legally permit someone to torture a child, or the parent of that child, by crushing their testicles), or the anti-torture DA concerned with the actual ethics.

What bothered me was that this was framed in an ethics versus the law sort of debate. My reading of the Geneva Convention and resulting case laws from Supreme Court cases dealing with the "war on terror" is that the law is pretty firmly against allowing torture, or at least, that the laws that were in place should have applied. This sort of frames the debate, as my new favorite blogger has placed it, as a fight between the sort of civil liberty hippy and the intelligence community (or the government in general) over the ways to best insure our safety while at the same time retaining a moral high ground, and tosses out the eternal questions of "rule of law". It is a debate, like a debate over "are cops/right-wing commentators racist", that the side that "should" triumph will nearly always lose because it fights on their terms, resorting to emotional appeals of the will, rather than the more forceful terms of logic and reason.

It also seems to dismiss the fact that we didn't bother to carefully examine whether this was 1) necessary and 2) legal. We just sort of said we needed to do it and that therefore it must be legal. I was pleased they had an Ali Soufan type expert testify, and who was even firmly against even the goofy '24' style torture example always held up in defence of torture (if there's a terrorist with a dirty bomb about to go off... shouldn't we use every possible method of extracting information from him?...blah, blah, blah...) And that this guy also laughed off the "well it's not torture, but rather enhanced or harsh interrogation" argument, as "I don't need a law to tell me that something is torture". Perhaps if the "it doesn't work" example is enough to convince a few people of how this works, we might be better off. But of course "it doesn't work" doesn't address the questions of why it was illegal in the first place. Because as the expert explicitly stated, it was in fact torture which is illegal under multiple codes of international law and US statutes. Just as we have tried to use legal language to conceal the identity of our prisoners as "noncombatant detainees" or "persons of interest" or some such, or that the laws of our country do not apply to our military during its deployments around the globe (much less international laws on humanity and articles of war which have also ratified and signed), the idea that we can explain away torture as instead something as basic as "enhanced interrogation" ought to sicken people with the perverse circumlocutions involved to advance that argument. Much less the idea that we were not simply using these on people who "deserved it", much less the idea that some of them DIED. Yes. We killed prisoners through an extralegal method (and not the approved methods of capital punishment or war itself). Americans have committed war crimes. And apparently nobody is to be held accountable. Not the little fish who supposedly exceeded their authority. And not the big fish who gave them the free reign to bypass the law in the first place. This isn't just a Bush problem. And I was pleased the episode dared to question the stance of the Obama administration thus far (outside of Eric Holder). We want to look forward just won't work. There are real crimes involved for which people should demand justice. Many do.

There are some crucial reasons put forward not to want to carry forward prosecutions. One of them is the idea that people would get off and that this might damage our ability to prevent such acts in the future. This was a consideration leading up to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals as well. I don't think it is a sufficient detraction. Simply because we can pass a law making murder illegal doesn't prevent murders from happening or from murderers getting off on technicalities of the law or never being prosecuted and punished in the first place. But it does allow us to try to penalize the people who commit them and hence try to offer some discouragement for bad and harmful behaviors. Like torturing prisoners for supposedly interrogation purposes. Another is the idea that these tactics "worked" and saved people, and we should forgive the people who had to carry them out or allowed them to go forward because many American lives were spared by severe and inhumane actions of a few. I think the CIA's IG report put that one to bed. They might have provided information, but it's not at all clear that they "worked", or that American lives were spared. Much less that it somehow discourages future terrorists or "gives aid and comfort to our enemies" to prosecute people over this issue.

What bothers me more than anything out of this is when the support and breakdowns of who supports these decisions come out. I think it would be obvious by now I have no love for religions or organised faith of any kind. But I'm always curious as to how many people use them flexibly to justify their preconceived positions of intolerance and injustice. The basic structural argument in favor of torture is not "it works" but rather "it makes us feel better about ourselves and our pain and suffering". This is one of the more common arguments in favor of the death penalty as well, "it gives the victim's family closure", an argument which I am somewhat sympathetic toward, but think is totally stupid from a societal point of view given the costs and the distraction of resources involved in trying to kill criminals off rather than to try to prevent them from existing in the first place. The same logic applies to torture. It costs more than it benefits. Even for the people who have suffered and lost greatly. They do not gain something for the knowledge that the people responsible (supposedly, since these are people who are held without trial and without public evidence in many cases, and many have been released as innocent) will be made to suffer for their transgressions. For whatever reason, these are arguments advanced by people steeped in religious faith. The Bush administration was commonly invoking it. Death penalty statutes, or the active use of them, are more common in the more religious Southern and Midwestern states as well (of course Ohio has managed to botch a few lately to give this state some fun publicity in the topic). As are stronger sentencing programs generally. Polling data I've seen tend to push Catholics or Evangelicals, both of whom will tend to use more literal Biblical traditions, to the head of the torture class. I'm not sure where they get their religious teachings from, but it doesn't seem to me like they've read their own books. Or rather, they seem to be employing a concept of justice that predates it: the eye for an eye code of Hammurabi. More or less, it seemed to me that the Christian ideal for justice was to leave such matters to their god and that human justice was an impossibility owing to the doctrines of original sin (man is fallen, "let he who is without..."). You were not supposed to apply these things outside the framework of state laws by taking the "law" into your own hands and casting judgments along with demanding their penalties in an exacting fashion upon your enemies or the people who wrong you, nor to use the power of a sovereign state to do anything you wanted to people. So it's difficult for me to examine uncritically the people who are clothing themselves in the sort of values revolution then to turn around and say that we must use illegal, even unethical, methods to protect ourselves. And that they will extract some degree of pleasure in exacting this suffering on others, because they plainly do want to taste the feeling of vengeance for themselves, rather than to rely on the sometimes tedious processes of human written laws of conduct and ethics, or even their expressed faith in some higher authority still than that for the application of justice to occur.

The Thomas More example (I think a powerful one for both secularists or the religious, it's basically the same case as Socrates or Gandhi or any number of other real world examples) is that our laws are here to protect us. Not just against the evils of the world, the murderers, rapists, or the terrorists. But against ourselves. The line from Watchmen that appears several times is "Who watches the watchers" or "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" as I quoted it a few weeks ago. In a society without authoritative principles to guide its laws (principles which can be equally well found from reason or perhaps through religion, but never through the sophistry implied in the Yoo character in this TV show episode), nobody does. If the law can be violated by the sovereign power and authority of a state whenever it wants, then of what use is the law, or for that matter, of the state itself? In the end, the only way this has a happy ending for the state, for the people of it, and for the principle of rule of law, is for somebody to catch the heat and ideally to be penalized for going outside the laws we use to govern ourselves.

I can only hope that seeing something like a case made to do so, something like a case made against the supposed efficacy of torture, and something like a case made against the unchecked power of a sovereign state or its executive branch (and the associated war powers), would be enough to start that ball rolling.

Complicated bills

I'm with John and Eric on this one. Reading the bills, it's sort of a populist thing. We are assuming that laws which would have to be read would be 1) voted against if they were too complex or long (which is probably a desirable outcome) or 2) would be voted against if they were actually bad legislation (definitely a desirable outcome). There is no evidence that either will be in fact true. Reading something lawyer-ly tends to require a lawyer to translate it. Which is why instead of reading the bills, Congress tends to outsource this to expert committees first, then toward lobbying groups or staffers to do the actual grunt work of interpreting the tapestry of law. And because there are so many permutations and effects to crafting a law, it is necessary to make some of them rather complex, even where they are simple and universally understood to be necessary. For example, killing human being, considered a universal moral crime, has about 10 different legal codes associated with it. It has to in order to account for things like self-defense, suicide, accidental deaths, premeditation, police/military necessity (and its opposed brutality) and so on.

Likewise, there are lots of citizen groups that try to get bills posted as soon as they go up and begin interpreting them. The assumption is that if these groups come up with enough support to say "this is a bad bill", it would be killed. But that hasn't shown itself to be true almost ever. There are a couple of high-intensity stakes (immigration in 2006, or particular amendments within the stimulus or health care bills) that were taken out in this manner. But then the "de-fund ACORN" bill, something which seems to be either Un-Constitutional, with a capital U, or just a hasty and sloppy law which probably would have passed anyway even if people had read the thing because of the optics of politics. The PATRIOT act is another example. The ideological positions of Congressmen and the political framing of an issue (the public interpretation of a yea or nay vote) is generally going to trump understanding of an issue and hence real objections to its passage. As a result, you get situations like Russ Feingold being the only no vote on the original PATRIOT act in the Senate, the one guy who ideologically supports civil liberties, even in the face of demands for some feeling of absolute (impossible) security. If reading the bills actually stopped bills which are bad for the public interest or out of line with both the Constitution and the public sentiments and had a track record of accomplishing this, then fine, I'd be in favor of it. But thus far, the things that "requirement" has defeated have seemed to be the more reasonable, usually cost saving, things (birth control subsidies in the stimulus bill for people on unemployment, immigration reform and streamlining, living will consultations paid for by medicare), while bad bills continue to pass. This is not an encouraging sign.

23 September 2009

Banking compensation

Paul who?

I read the Krugman piece that inspired this. I'm not sure why he's that influential after reading it. I may have to go read his work on the Bank of Japan or something. Because it doesn't seem like he understands the issues even as well as Obama does. Obama's substantive question in response to this sort of regulatory cap was "why is that we're going to regulate executive pay for Wall St bankers but not Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or NFL quarterbacks?" For some reason Krugman thinks that bankers are a special case that needs to be restrained and therefore is astonished at the President's attitude (as would be all the people who think he's a socialist).

But it would seem to me that in an industry like banking, we would want the most motivated and skilled people running it. And if you're going to start micromanaging their pay, then you won't get that, both because creative people don't like oversight and micromanagement of how they do their jobs and because motivated technical people don't like not making as much as they feel they deserve. Bankers are both.

I think it makes more sense to look at why banks didn't already have skilled motivated people who understood the risks they were undertaking and sought to avoid them in favor of massive short term profitability (but lower guaranteed long-term yields owing to high risks). Banks used to be in the long-term game and made a killing for centuries. They don't need to try to make a killing in the short term game too. So why did they decide to start? Those are more interesting questions than complaining about the facts of where they are now and exercising some sort of populist rage over the amount of money they are privately raking in whilst we bailed them out. It's too late for that. When we handed over billions of dollars, it did not come with instructions. And in the absence of such banks will simply do whatever they thought was profitable because that's what they do. As a hint, it was not, generally, loaning the money back out, the only real economic reason to hand the money over in the first place, but stashing it to make the balance sheets look prettier than the mismanaged assets they had on their books.

So chill Paul. You're not going to make much sense here. The Economist already tackled this problem months ago when we passed rules on the companies that took bailout money and decided it was counterproductive and foolish. Plus the companies were already doing most of what he wants done (claw-backs, higher base pay relative to incentive pay) such that it makes no sense to enforce it as a regulatory process. Most of economic policy is, especially when you let the undereducated rabble vote on it. You don't need to therefore make a case to the public to do it. What economists need to do is precisely what he's bothered about Obama doing, not giving into the populist rabble, and instead explaining what the problems and risks are in pursuing a given course of action.

Introverts anonymous

I figured I'd just post this whole thing. Because I liked it. And it seems to fit for the most part.

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If so, do you tell this person he is "too serious," or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands—and that you aren't caring for him properly. Science has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people (I am not making this up). If you are behind the curve on this important matter, be reassured that you are not alone. Introverts may be common, but they are also among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world.

I know. My name is Jonathan, and I am an introvert.

Oh, for years I denied it. After all, I have good social skills. I am not morose or misanthropic. Usually. I am far from shy. I love long conversations that explore intimate thoughts or passionate interests. But at last I have self-identified and come out to my friends and colleagues. In doing so, I have found myself liberated from any number of damaging misconceptions and stereotypes. Now I am here to tell you what you need to know in order to respond sensitively and supportively to your own introverted family members, friends, and colleagues. Remember, someone you know, respect, and interact with every day is an introvert, and you are probably driving this person nuts. It pays to learn the warning signs.

What is introversion? In its modern sense, the concept goes back to the 1920s and the psychologist Carl Jung. Today it is a mainstay of personality tests, including the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Introverts are not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say "Hell is other people at breakfast." Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: "I'm okay, you're okay—in small doses."

How many people are introverts? I performed exhaustive research on this question, in the form of a quick Google search. The answer: About 25 percent. Or: Just under half. Or—my favorite—"a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population."

Are introverts misunderstood? Wildly. That, it appears, is our lot in life. "It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert," write the education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. (They are also the source of the quotation in the previous paragraph.) Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

Are introverts oppressed? I would have to say so. For one thing, extroverts are overrepresented in politics, a profession in which only the garrulous are really comfortable. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Bill Clinton. They seem to come fully to life only around other people. To think of the few introverts who did rise to the top in politics—Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon—is merely to drive home the point. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, whose fabled aloofness and privateness were probably signs of a deep introverted streak (many actors, I've read, are introverts, and many introverts, when socializing, feel like actors), introverts are not considered "naturals" in politics.

Extroverts therefore dominate public life. This is a pity. If we introverts ran the world, it would no doubt be a calmer, saner, more peaceful sort of place. As Coolidge is supposed to have said, "Don't you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?" (He is also supposed to have said, "If you don't say anything, you won't be called on to repeat it." The only thing a true introvert dislikes more than talking about himself is repeating himself.)

With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. "People person" is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like "guarded," "loner," "reserved," "taciturn," "self-contained," "private"—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.

Are introverts arrogant? Hardly. I suppose this common misconception has to do with our being more intelligent, more reflective, more independent, more level-headed, more refined, and more sensitive than extroverts. Also, it is probably due to our lack of small talk, a lack that extroverts often mistake for disdain. We tend to think before talking, whereas extroverts tend to think by talking, which is why their meetings never last less than six hours. "Introverts," writes a perceptive fellow named Thomas P. Crouser, in an online review of a recent book called Why Should Extroverts Make All the Money? (I'm not making that up, either), "are driven to distraction by the semi-internal dialogue extroverts tend to conduct. Introverts don't outwardly complain, instead roll their eyes and silently curse the darkness." Just so.

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts' Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say "I'm an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush."

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it's not a choice. It's not a lifestyle. It's an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don't say "What's the matter?" or "Are you all right?"

Third, don't say anything else, either.

(commentary, whether you want it or not)
For my part, I got the "are you all right" and "what's the matter" stuff all the time. No I'm fine never seemed to answer that adequately. On some levels it was indeed true that there is often something "bothering" me, but most of the time I was not aware that my expression actually was conveying this impression. In fact, I was usually working on something other than the intractable problems that really bother me and the fixed contemplative expression wasn't at that point a message that someone needed to ask me a question to get me to talk about the negative and inexpressible depth and objects that I have no need or desire to talk to anyone about. It was instead an expression that reads "shut the fuck up and leave me alone while I figure this one out". When I want to or need to talk about something, I will say so. In fact I will say so whether it is something you want me to talk to you about or not, given my propensity to engage in lengthy dissertations on politics and economics which can kindly go ignored or smiled upon in favor of the rarer droplet of wisdom concerning sex or the conduct of human relationships. I have long since figured out that many of these extroverted people don't mind you talking to them, in fact they seem quite comfortable and happy knowing that these quiet, withdrawn and private souls will confide in them at times. Just please don't bug us when we don't want to talk and where the room is suddenly filled with silence. That talking part, that was "you time". The silence part is "me time".

Besides, that's what blogs and poetry are for. The saying of things that are said in silence.

The acting the part issue is also something I definitely know of. The thinking me is far different than the interacting me. The second is a character actor. It's carefully designed to fill the role of acting like a human, just enough to try to keep people from bothering me when I don't want them to. But it's not "real", in the sense that it's something I feel like doing. It's more like doing a job that you don't really like doing. You would never say that it defines your identity. The thinking me only slips out into the open world occasionally. Maybe this is because it's a very small identity that everyone has to begin with and I'm just more cognizant that I have less to offer than some extroverted person. I don't know. I think it's more that I feel I have better things to reflect on most of the time. I'd rather talk about them than answering tedious questions like "what's wrong" all the time. So it seems better in the long run to behave like there isn't something wrong, enough so that people will listen to these onerously complicated rambles from time to time about things that might actually impact their lives rather than try to inquire as to my constant well-being and state of mind. The second is not something you get to know about without my consent and to be blunt, isn't always that interesting a subject when other people talk about it either. It is of specific interest, but not of general public consumption interest. When I will ask a question like "how's your day?" or "how are you?", questions that other (extroverted) people will routinely ask me with passing disinterest in the response but which I will almost never ask in a casual manner, that's when it's important. I suppose the flip side is the "we need to talk" conversations. But those are rarely deployed casually even by extroverts. Even most extroverts have a margin for internal privacy and filtering that sort of stuff out of the conversational hopper in favor of banal things like the routes to work and the latest celebrity train wreck.

As an aside, I'm guessing that the relative admiration of Coolidge is limited to introverts and economists. As if those were not the same sort of people. He missed my favorite Cal story. At a dinner party, a woman was supposed to have told him that she had a bet with her friend that she could get him to say more than three words. "You Lose" was his reply.

War never changes. The reasons were trivial and pointless

Afghan wars

I don't get the argument that we needed to occupy and reform Afghanistan totally either. It seemed enough to go in and carve up the known forces that supported terrorism abroad, and then let the Afghans continue sort out the country as they had been doing for several centuries. We would as always retain the ability to deploy forces again should such a threat to the international scene emerge again. But most of the threat came from other places (the terrorists involved in 9-11 came from Saudi Arabia, and lived and trained in Europe or America, not Afghanistan), and was funded in other ways than the current narco-terrorism we're fighting in Afghanistan. It was enough to more closely monitor such things (ideally within the context of a legal system with checks and balances, something we still haven't started doing). It wasn't necessary to go in and remove "safe havens", with the logic being that we should play whack-a-mole and occupy such places with military force. That, to my mind, before any other considerations apply, is just a bad use of the military. You have a military to win wars and battles (ideally to prevent them from occurring at all by "winning" ahead of time). And you win them by forcing the engagements on your terms. Not by committing to battles that other people want you to fight. Rooting out safe havens through occupied force commits us to a battle on the terms of our enemies. It makes possible the propaganda that we are an imperialist force aggressive against Islam itself.

I guess there are human rights issues that people think will be addressed in that way. I believe those people are badly misinformed on how "democracy" or "freedom" works around the globe in places that it hasn't worked before without any of the necessary conditions available to make it work (middle class economy based on trade, rule of law instead of fear of law, etc). As in: it doesn't. And you can't make it work unless you build up the system necessary to support it first. So if our interest is to prevent human rights abuses against women or by imposing a strict shariah law upon Afghans, we would be at this for decades, essentially forming the core for a new imperial edict of sorts. It's not enough to simply prop up a government that says it won't do or won't allow those things we don't want to happen. I didn't think that was why we were there originally, why the argument was to stay there, instead of invading Iraq, or why we were there now.

But apparently that's all it really comes down to. Which to me means it's a dumb thing to be doing.

(Apologies for the flurry of activity. But I have had less interest over the last week in commentary. I really should try to be more consistent.)

closed the door on the barn with the horse still in it, on fire


I'm not sure, but I think an elite culture that attempts to or even succeeds in completely denying access to the press is not to be trusted. Between the O'Reilly acceptance of the "media courage" award speech (with no press) and the Palin speech in China (with no press), and the lack of most any right-wing populist to go on anything other than Faux where they will get softball questions, I'm not sure what the hell is the matter with people. I guess the pretense of press coverage through Faux News, essentially a state-run media for populist conservatism, gives people the idea that this is still an open forum of ideas.

If you are a public figure, your opinions, thoughts, and yes, even facts, are things to be studied, debated, and criticized. They are not privileged state secrets. Even if you come from an ideological perspective that they should be, ala Cheney. Now sure, the press on the center-left doesn't do all that great at digging into issues either (the ACORN scandal shows up as a red flag here). But I don't think for the most part you could say that it's always simply a mouthpiece for liberal Democrats either (MSNBC would be an exception here, but I don't know that that many people on the right care what MSNBC says either, lots of people on the left care what the Rush-Beck-O'Reilly triumvirate says ).

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, I've seen renewed calls for the "Fairness Doctrine". I don't know why people think this is a good idea. Okay fine, we could shut up the idiocy of Glenn Beck's faux populism now. We could assume that's a good thing (I disagree fully, even though I thoroughly disagree with much of Beck's antics). The problem is that an issue like the Fairness Doctrine is a tool to be used by whoever is in power to silence dissent. It is a blunt instrument that can and will be seized upon to silence anyone that the government wants to silence. Not just the people who currently "deserve it".

The first object of a true classical liberal is to preserve the ability and freedom of his critics and opponents to oppose and criticize. They are not suddenly obligated to begin agreeing with such people, to take them seriously, or even to pay any attention at all to them. But they are indeed obligated to protect their ability to exist and to speak their thoughts. The reason: it creates an expectation that others will do the same and thus tolerate your own wacky and controversial opinions. When you pay your enemies the respect that they deserve (such as it is), the atmosphere is created that others should do the same. Even if your enemies do not, the vast middle ground of politics will. So far as this applies to Beck et al, I say let them talk. They will only succeed in hanging themselves with the vast majority of the public. To the grounds that they are whipping up a frenzied portion, I would say that there is a certain percentage of the population that is always susceptible to populist rhetoric (of any variety, as the Huey Long's of the world can attest). Usually the best response is to educate and catch them before they go that far.

creeping wars of protectionism

immigration abroad continues

In a protracted "debate" over the value of American education and the propensity of immigrants to come and get one, then leave, it's becoming increasingly clear the problem is the general attitude of xenophobia and its effect on our immigration system more broadly. For whatever reason, it is relatively easy to come here and get an engineering degree with a student visa. But somehow, it is not so easy to come here to get an engineering job (though it is relatively easy to come here to get a construction job or to pick lettuce for example, seeing as those laws are not enforced, but the skilled, H1 job visas are). As a solution: "American" companies like Microsoft have opened offices in China, Canada, Europe, etc. Where they can keep the people they find who have been trained by our high-tech American universities in employ without dealing with the ridiculous amount of confusion and bureaucracy to hire them in America itself.

The "America first" attitude on education and jobs, as with any form of protectionism, means America loses.

quick hit

"In addition, 45% approve of Obama’s handling of health care, while 46% disapprove, which is up from his 41%-47% score last month. By comparison, just 21% approve of the Republican Party’s handling of the issue.

And who will get blamed if health care doesn't get passed this year? Per the poll, 10% say Obama, 16% say congressional Democrats, and 37% say congressional Republicans."

Couple quick points.

1) It seems obvious that the problem the Republicans have is that their "position" is not clearly staked out as anything other than obstinate obstructionism. They have no serious plan put on the table for public consumption. Those that are focus more on tort reform instead of health care. I've been waiting for them to back something like Wyden-Bennett or loot liberally from its ideas. But instead it's much easier to simply attack within a context of media. Without proposing a solution.

2) The public is, in my opinion, wrong about who should get the blame if it doesn't pass. I should think given the political atmosphere over the last several months that the Republican Congress/Senate members were not going to support almost anything Obama related or supported. But they also don't have the numbers to effectively stop anything Obama related or supported either. As a result, the political calculus is such that they, generally, will stand the most to gain from "health care" reform either succeeding or failing. If it passes with only Democratic support, they benefit for at least the next election because the public sort of has this strange sense of wanting checks and balances and gridlock and gets it by putting in place two parties that supposedly give it. If it doesn't pass, they win again, because they supposedly provided gridlock to the people who wanted it on this issue. Maybe that's why they get the blame (combined with the disproportionately loud amount of noise being generated from their dwindling numbers). But the reality is the blame will be within the opposing ends of the Democratic party: the far liberal wing which wants a firm public option at all costs and the Blue Dog wing, which doesn't, and also seems willing to tax health insurance. The real debate, such as it is, on health care matters has been going on between Democrats for months now but it's been sort of shouted down with the supposed effectiveness of the town hall rantings.

21 September 2009

The war is long.

"Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty — so, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom."
Adlai Stevenson 1954.

It is a long war. It's annoying to be constantly fighting the same battles over and over.

17 September 2009

good, but not great. happy but not bliss?

I do know there is definite research indicating that these later marriages produce later born children. And that there is evidence that waiting on starting a family, ~30 or older for the parents of children, is helpful for the children academically and socially for a variety of reasons. One of which being that the parents who typically wait until then tend to be more educated and already have some distance into their career fields as a result. If these conservatives were really at all concerned about families, they'd have noticed this research with definitive claims instead of this other research with wish-washy ones like "28+ year old people have unrealistically higher expectations or set routines" or some such. It seems more like the interest is to return women to functioning as brood mares who marry younger and thus potentially provide more children, and quickly, rather than to allow people to make individually useful decisions that may or may not conform to that supposedly idealized state they envision.

But then again, I haven't seen very many pundits of any variety saying that 30+ for children was a great idea. And as for myself, I don't care that much when, or even if, most people decide to have children. I think it's reasonable to avoid too many teenagers (high school-ers anyway) getting pregnant or causing pregnancies because this causes a litany of externality costs: lack of completed formal education, sunk costs into child-bearing, health care, likelihood of divorce or separation increases, increase in crime rate a generation out, and so on. That's about as far as that line of paternalistic decision making goes. Children, along with getting married, seems to be a deeply personal decision of the variety best left up to individuals to make. There are plenty of people out there who are inclined to tell us how to make it their way. We should welcome such advice but always consider its source and its validity to our own decisions.

16 September 2009

random economic opinions of the day

AEA survey report

Some comments here are appropriate.
For example, economists at the highest levels tend to lean Democratic by party affiliations. I am not sure if this was true of the survey respondents. Nor did this data break out any ideological variances. But there are some clear(er) consensus on some issues that I've seen throughout the economic spectrum every time there's a survey like this done, or a study of published works and opinions.

1) The U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade
73.3% for, mean of 4.1 on a 5 point scale. - I have never understood the "advantages" of protectionism. Even before studying economic theory it did not make sense to try to advantage individual people just on the basis of where they lived, worked, or were born.

3) The U.S. should ban genetically modified crops. 82.1% against, mean of 1.79. Don't get this one either. If they are legitimately dangerous or unhealthy, that's a different story. But pretty much all modern agriculture is from a process of "genetic modification" anyway.

5&6) Employers should be required to provide their full time workers with health care insurance (and 6, provide all their workers with health care insurance). 62%, 2.49 mean, and 71.7%, 2.21 mean. This isn't very definitive, for example it doesn't examine why they should or should not. I suspect you could very easily say that employers should have to do it in an environment where this is the means that most people receive health care benefits: through their employers. But that doesn't say that it would work all that well.

7) Employers in the U.S. should be taxed if their employee health insurance
expenditures fall below a certain threshold. 63% against, 2.24 mean. - I didn't initially understand what the premise of this question was to be used for. What if the company managed to pay for its health care for all its employers, as they might find is "ideal" and did so below that threshold by using competitive forces or selecting effective but cheaper forms of insurance? But then it became clear. Maryland's law, overturned in court, targeted Wal-Mart for spending too little on employee health care in the state of Maryland (the law was deliberately structured such that no other private employers were actually effected which is why it was overturned, it's basically a bill of attainder).

Couple of other major for or against "biases".
Barriers to entering the medical profession in the U.S. should be reduced.
63.7% for 3.6 mean. Medical licensing has been on the agenda for at least 50 years. And it's widely sourced as something like "Doc-in-the-box" competition. Recent discussions showed that there are lots of people who seem to think these are bad ideas, along with pharmacists distributing vaccines apparently. But economists are not "lots of people".

The U.S. should allow payments to organ donors and their families. 70.3% , 3.75 - I don't get the revulsion on this one. If you don't want a price tag on your kidney, you don't have to put one there.

Should impose taxes on unhealthy foods 60.8% 2.39. I have some disagreement here for cost recapturing, but the issue is likely bound up in "unhealthy", as in what constitutes an unhealthy food and who decides this. It is similar to the standards movement in teaching in my opinion and hard to come up with a coherent and transparent government policy to make it work, but it is probably in the long run a decent idea if you can figure out how to enforce it and provide some workable criteria for making the judgments necessary.

Wal-Mart generates more benefits than costs 72.3% 3.86. Don't get this one even being on the list.

Economic growth in developed countries leads to greater feeling of well-being
87.8% 4.24. There was no measurable report for "happiness" however, despite "happiness" indices tracking well with economic development and growth. In this I might have some agreement. After a certain point more wealth in a country isn't really that useful for "happiness". But a lack of growth and wealth is almost certainly a significant cause of "unhappiness" because of various factors like unemployment, wage deflation, investments being destroyed in value, and a lack of innovation.

Government subsidies on ethanol should be eliminated, 55%, reduced a lot or somewhat, another 23.3%. I suspect this is wrapped up in part with the free trade issue generally, but it's also just not that efficient a means of alternative energy relative to alternatives (at least corn ethanol is not).

Targeted inflation rate should be around 2%. Sounds about right. I think I'd prefer NGDP targeting like Australia does, but that would probably result in most years having a targeted inflation rate of around 2%.

Typical American saves too little 69.5%. Really? Most of these should come as no shock to people familiar with economics and economic theory.

But the more divided questions.
Taxing health insurance benefits as income was split almost down the middle. Along with eliminating health care mandates for insurance companies as to what they must cover. That second part surprised me. Though it is possible that a strict reading of "eliminating" such mandates dissuaded some people.

Sarbox was not popular among some, fairly popular among others, and pretty much everybody else had no real opinion.

Eliminating the home mortage interest deduction was about evenly split, slightly in favor. I think this should be phased out. There are lots of reasons to purchase property which provide value. Most of the current reasons are to protect wealth against taxation because of the tax code rather than to provide stability against inflation, provide basic investment value, provide rental income, etc. There are other things that a government could do to get lower and middle income families into homes that they can sort of afford, but one such thing would be to eliminate the price premium paid because home values are artificially inflated upward by the favorable tax treatment.

I was somewhat surprised to see that casinos were slight disfavored, and mostly neutral. If gambling doesn't really benefit society relative to its costs, that wouldn't be terribly surprising. But I'm not sure that it provides a local or state government with a true cost either. I suppose I shall have to examine any research on impacts on local crime, drunken behavior, or if there's some sort of significant damage to society caused by a handful of people gambling away their mortgage or something.

15 September 2009

Swing away

I had this reaction to people talking about gun possession and threats to my person, say at an incident of road rage with an assailant coming towards me. If I saw them coming at me with a katana I'd be very worried. I probably would be mildly concerned if they got out of their car with a gun in hand or on their hip (though quite a bit more so if they started shooting immediately). Just their fists or some short blunt instrument, like a tire iron, not so much. In such an event I am after all surrounded by a case of steel and plastic, with a giant mobile shield in the form of a door right next to me. Out of the three, someone wielding a sword seems to me the most dangerous and imminent threat to my survival and safety. For one thing, who carries a sword in their car? That would have to be someone who knows how to use it to lethal effect or a fully deranged person likely to use it. A gun has some restrictions on the latter for ownership and not that many people are crack shots with a gun relative to the numbers who own one, especially a handgun. A sword is therefore the most likely instrument, other than an automatic rifle or sub-machine gun (again, who keeps those in their cars?), to cause serious risk.

My general reaction was that I wouldn't actually need a gun to defend myself except in very extreme and unlikely circumstances as a result. Even simply to display that I had one and intimate that I would use it. Much less to actually have to use it.

So to me, the idea that someone with a sword in hand did not dissuade someone from attacking could be taken as a reasonable precaution of quickly gauging their intention to harm and justify self-defense. This line in particular was basically my reaction: "If someone attacked me when I was visibly armed with a deadly weapon, I think I could reasonably believe that he must be very dangerous himself."

It's a lot harder to quickly kill some assailant with a sword. Though lopping off a hand would tend to take some of the fight out pretty quickly. What's curious to me is that this even became an issue. Ie, would someone have asked this question if it involved a gun instead of a sword? We seem to be assuming the gun must have been used in self-defense there but I'm not aware of too many Americans trying to go on some sort of offensive killing spree using swords in recent history. They would seem to me to be in the circumstances described, just as useful as a defensive weapon for protection and just as likely to dissuade attackers. In medieval societies, one mark of civilization was not having to walk around towns armed at all times. Since swords were the weapon of choice generally, it seems reasonable to presume they were used defensively for protection and displayed openly to dissuade the need to do so in the places where there was lawlessness.

14 September 2009

Charles in Hollywood, or maybe not.

There's a new movie that may eventually come to America. About Charles Darwin. It's only got a handful of votes thus far on imdb but it doesn't look like it's in the District 9/IB category for "best film" talk thus far. And it is probably fair to say it won't be going on to the same levels of acclaim that the producer's previous work (The Last Emperor) did. What is clear from those few votes is that there's a general antipathy coming from Americans. Non-US users had a much higher approval rating on average. And Americans are not likely to have even seen the film in order to approve it or not in the first place. Because it hasn't found a distributor here.

To be fair, the number of votes on imdb is still very small and not yet constituting a statistical significance. I fully expect it will however. Darwin is practically vilified here while he's celebrated abroad, especially of course in England where he comes in still around Shakespeare, IK Brunel, and Churchill as one of the greatest English figures in history (For the record I have no idea why Diana is ahead of Elizabeth I, why Shakespeare isn't ahead of Churchill, why Monty is in there at all, or why Rowling is on the list at all, much less ahead of Tolkien, so don't ask me to explain the British people's adulation)

I had a conversation the other day in an online forum where I described a general feeling of disappointment that can be credited against my fellow Americans regarding their achievements in math or science. Any country where someone like me is in the top percentile of mathematics scores on its standardized tests should be embarrassed. Sure I can memorize credit card numbers, do basic calculations in my head, and have no trouble sorting out the word problems so common to tests. I am not or should not be seen on the level of a possible scientist or mathematician as a result. There's a lot of stories about John von Neumann where he defeated an early computer in computational speed or the "fly puzzle" riddle where he summed the infinite series almost instantaneously. Now he might be in the top .0001 percentile, the equivalent of a mathematical or scientific god. But extrapolating downward, it would seem to imply the top percentile of a country is still a fairly elite group in terms of their logical abilities and raw computational effectiveness. As it so often happens, a stated law of human stupidity in fact, I will underestimate the incompetency of my countrymen until the evidence of their diminished skills are presented. Thus it is that the problem of under-qualified American collegians and graduate students, particularly for math and science, is one of our own making. And one which we should seek to eliminate if we wish to remain competitive in a global economy instead of continuing to bailout our companies or issue them shelter from the difficulty of international competition.

Such a problem as this should be met with embarrassed resolve. Not scorn and derision of the scientific mindset. Anti-intellectualism, with all its accompanying slippery logic, has long had its proponents in America, from William Jennings Bryan to Sarah Palin. But why we stand behind this record so proudly in the face of its "achievements" is beyond my comprehension. It is this anti-intellectualism that places us behind other nation-states in its endeavors and makes the explanation of complex theories and objections to national policy that much more tasking. It gives us instead irrational and baseless fears, things like "he wasn't born in America" despite every accountable shred of evidence to the contrary. It takes significant fears, like the Sputnik launch in the 1950s, or significant accomplishments, like the heady days of the first half of the 20th century and its numerous scientific discoveries, theories, and even celebrities made of the titans of science (Einstein, Oppenheimer, von Neumann, Salk), for Americans to again revere these skills and honor the achievements of prominent researchers and theoreticians, like Darwin should be.

This sort of slippery logic then attaches ideas like "social Darwinism" and its resulting violence and mayhem, or the long history of slavery and the attending institutional racism that persists today, or the ideological purges of Stalinism and Maoism and hangs them at the feet of secularist mindsets while seeking to discredit and disabuse people from studying and acknowledging the power of Darwin's arguments even today, refusing even to acknowledge the merits of studying and postulating on the physical and natural world around us is uncalled for and frankly rather counter-productive to defending some basis of personal faith. Faith of any kind in any idea should be openly challenged and tested so it may be tempered with some humility and perhaps some credence, emerging stronger or more enlightened and refined. While untested and uncertain beliefs are usually groundless nonsense as a result.

But this should surprise no one that Americans have sought en masse to cower behind their beliefs rather than to examine them, even merely to humanize their opponents and discourse with them agreeably without agreement. It is exactly the mindset of a person who is motivated by a belief rather than a question. They will seek to discredit other beliefs, like ideologies which compete for power and influence by associating them with tremendous human failings. People look at fascism in the 1930s and sometimes seem confused as to how the first group of people who were rounded up and imprisoned or shot and tortured were communists. Or how Catholics and Baptists, two religions with almost exactly the same set of beliefs, or Shi'a and Sunni for that matter, and again are confused as to how these are not cooperative organs seeking to further their shared goals and instead are often seen historically locked in mortal and even violent conflicts. But when you are motivated by a belief, it is central to denigrate and destroy any other competing belief. Especially beliefs which are not so far removed. These beliefs in particular become a heresy to the cause. When instead there is a question, people examine these opposing structures and can discard them in an intellectual process. This is the precise manner of scientific discovery and theory. It applies equally well to the process of political theory, though often without so rigorous a data set in reference as a scientist studying the physical world rather than the social could amass in support.

Yet as we see now with shrill claims of "socialists!" coming from a political party whose most recent innovations were effectively socialist policies (expansion of medicare, educational reforms) rather than market reforms and whose basic ideology is so indistinct by international politics from its opposition as to regard it as fundamentally the same, the phenomenon is not limited to oppressing Darwinian evolution or even insisting on the absolute infallibility of spiritual texts, or the interminable claims for strict Constitutionalism as a sort of Bible of our own making, as the basis for national dissension.

This most blatant denial of examination and thoughtful reflection is not limited to Republicans nor the present time scale. In fact it's practically impossible to escape it in American history and misrepresentation of ideology and theory is center stage, Act I of any of our political campaigns. The Adams-Jefferson campaign famously contained lower-level supporters claiming that Jefferson was plotting to turn churches into brothels while Adams was claimed to be a budding monarchist tyrant, for example. But the current and public embrace of vigorously opposing anything which might be construed as expertise, competence, and intellect should be appalling to anyone. If people don't like Darwin or view his research as somehow controversial (it isn't), they don't have to attend a fictional account centering around his life and, not even centering greatly around his work. I doubt very much that a Hollywood-type production is the best means to try to fight the distorted "debate" we have been having over evolutionary theory in this country. And it's not like they tried to do it by the looks of the reviews. Instead they seemed to have been examining his life work from the context of his life, a subject which might be uniquely interesting to anybody regardless of their religious persuasions or fundamental disagreements with scientific investigation into the processes that delight us in the form of our current presence on this planet. Whatever one's religious, philosophical, or spiritual insistence personally, it seems clear that we are here now. We may as well try to make sense of the things going on around us. Including other people that some, or unfortunately in the case of Darwin many, find hold disagreeable notions to our own.

Updated: It appears the blowback to the story itself framing the problems finding a distributor are largely viewed as an attempt to stir up controversy and that the distribution issue is one of not having a large enough outlet to satisfy the producers (Hurt Locker for instance was outstanding but had to make due with independent theaters for the most part, it's possible the producers feel this is a big enough movie it needs a bigger audience) might be a valid point. But measured against that, there didn't appear to be a problem finding a distributor elsewhere. This was instead an American problem.

I saw one comparison stating that if this was a movie about Immanuel Kant we'd probably see a similar lack of interest. I myself would probably put Kant and Darwin in the same breath in terms of their influence on history and the paths of human thought and discovery, but there is not any really serious public controversy and demagoguery surrounding Kant and his notions on ethics and reason that I am aware of. We do not for example have public electoral battles over teaching Kantian categorical imperatives to school children in the way that the theory of evolution has had to contend with. Put in the lineage of scientists, rather than just impressive philosophy, Darwin is in the same breath as people like Einstein, Galileo, or Newton. I am not aware of any major controversies surrounding Newtonian physics, the heliocentric solar system and astronomy in general, or the theory of relativity. These are largely accepted without difficulty among people of all walks of life and faith (or at least, the difficulty is more in line with the basic comprehension of science rather than a reliance on scriptural truth and rejecting rigorous intellectual and scientific examination of the world). Darwin is almost universally revered among the scientific and academic community in this country and almost universally vilified outside it. A movie attaching humanity to him, however fictitious, would be in my mind useful for us to have. For whatever reason the debate that theologians from various religious institutions have long since put aside regarding conflicts between scripture and evolutionary theory have not resulted in a strong scale debate among the followers of those theologies. It is a debate we need to have so as to appropriately define the role of science and whatever role it is that spirituality should or would retain, particularly in our public discourse, if not privately as well. It simply does not seem appropriate to discard evidence, expertise, and examination as a lifestyle choice in the modern world in the manner that we as a nation have grown so comfortable to doing.

13 September 2009


I've seen plenty of evidence to suggest that creativity needs a little "suffering". A writer needs a story of privation, of struggle, or even the need for hope, in order to tell a story to others. The artistic works of great creativity are often then composed by people who suffer internally with a deep sense of disconnection between the accomplishment, the accolades, and the provincial title of fame that they earn by these achievements and the eternal penalty that they pay in self recriminations, doubts, or even mental instability of a sort we might find as a qualified ailment.

Be that as it may, I would prefer if all that came along with a swift kick in the ass once in a while. Looking at the world from a unique perspective is hardly an artist's gift. It's the refined ability to express that perspective in some measure, and ideally in some measure that others will receive and appreciate, even if it is warped and askew from their safe compliant assertions, that is an artist's gift. It is not worth much to reflect on the state of affairs around you if nobody notices the reflections. Or where there is no inclination and harnessed ability in which to express and share them.

I come back to Plato frequently when this dark and wooded path of thought accrues over a period of a few weeks time (though I do not meet suddenly with Virgil). It's not a particularly insightful philosophy that the Republic expresses through the allegory of the cave. But it does appear to speak truth that most of the time human beings prefer things as they know them to be rather than as they really are. That makes it extremely difficult to see things as they really are and want to tell people about it. Oscar Wilde put it "A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world". It is not, I assure you, a fun way to go through life. To see others look around with hope and know that their hopes are unrealistic, even unnatural or already shattered into a million pieces before they even set out, is not a recipe inclined to give yourself many positive goals of your own. It also becomes difficult to see paths to from where you are toward a position of what you can see. And the incessant chanting of lunatics from the sidelines makes murky what would and can be carefully considered. I prefer these dark quiet illusions that I can see for myself all too often to the airy and bright spaces that other people would have me walk in. Not because I fear the blinding dawn, but because their spaces are usually emptier, colder, and full of mystery rather than perception.

Perhaps I am, like them, far too comfortable with what is known rather than what is. But it also doesn't give me much motivation to provide people with what is really possible when they refuse to face facts. Facts, like me I'm told, are stubborn things. Living in a world of passive receptivity to the facts and opinions of others, and appreciative of their objectives, if not always sharing their aims, is not a bad place to be. But if it is not the world that you would choose to make, it is not either the place to be. It is ultimately a frustration to be at arms length from the contest where ideas and principles are discovered, drawn out from the circumstances that surround us, and illuminated to others. Whatever gifts I imagine others might perceive in myself are of no consequence next to this sort of failing to contextualize something new and imagine what is possible. Rather than to apprehend the difficult and to discourse at length on the impertinent, the mundane, the politic, or the private within an equally droll accounting, it is better to have the boundless leaps of intuition, the insight to see through the complexities, or to account for them, and to see what was actually there where nobody knew of anything imaginable.

To matter, as it were, seems to be the only currency worth having. But it comes with such a high toll to exact on its proprietors and financiers. As difficult as it is to try to understand people, especially those arriving at their distinct impressions by a less rigorous means of testing them than someone full of self recriminations as myself, it becomes ever harder to get them to understand what it is you wanted to say. The curious vexation emerging of a blurted statement of fact then becomes a painful reminder of the cost of action rather than the incentive to repeat it. Moving quietly and with stillness behind the curtains gives a great deal of liberties to recover, to adapt, to change, and to re-enter the stage of life at some new vantage, with great advantage over the openness of those already there and fixed for all the world to see. But that all sort of implies that you want to go on at all and relies on the hope that the fruits of that labour will be paid. I have no great Pacific Ocean at the end of a long tunnel in sight. Without that clarity of purpose, it gets easier to accept the walls and to recycle the great pains that put them there in the first place rather than to enslave them to some great master stroke.

11 September 2009

obligatory rememberance post

Sully provides some thoughts on the matter and what we have gained, such as it is, from the 8 years since. I am in some agreement, in particular on the issues that have evolved over time, though not so much my mood afterward.

I saw the reaction of Americans as largely fear, with some anger or resolve for vengeance mixed in. But I was not given to feel fear. I knew I wasn't in any danger so there was plenty of time to reflect on what was happening, why, and importantly, what we should do now. I was fortified by a sense of solidarity and affection or respect that developed naturally in the raw and unforgiving atmosphere that follows a national tragedy. I often wish that these unified emotions would develop in the absence of gaping wounds on our psyche. This was compared elsewhere to the emotions of a funeral or a wake. Having been through a few of those in the past couple years, I'd say that's pretty much what it was like. People's eyes wander back to the carnage, the corpse in the room or the ghastly gutted shell of twisted metal, once in a while, and wonder what might have been or reflect briefly on what is lost and the fleeting passage of our mortality. But mostly they gather together and draw strength, hope, and love from each other. This is a great thing. It was even a fairly global thing as allies and even some foes from around the world gathered with us for a time in observance of this pain. But watching what happened afterward, it was obvious that it wasn't going to last and was going to be squandered.

I already knew security was an impossibility without a police state. So while I can understand the demand for safety, I knew it was impossible. Ben Franklin came to mind immediately. So watching new bureaucracies emerge with colour coded alert levels and ridiculous screenings at airports was not a fun experience. It looked to me like we had already lost the war when even basic liberty as travel was abandoned at the first sign of trouble. I was well aware that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was probably stupid, if not counterproductive and was free to speak out against it at the time. I had no problem with Afghanistan going in to try to find Al Qaeda and its training camps, perhaps to expel the Taliban. I have a huge problem trying to figure out how to have a workable nation-state there at our expense and effort. And I never understood the logic behind Iraq. It seemed pretty obvious to me that if even our allies were scratching their heads over our decisions perhaps we have some bad or unconvincing intelligence and thus a weak case for regime change.

I knew that torture was wrong under any circumstance, even the ticking time bomb that we were told it was to be used for. But other Americans went greedily along with it in the transition from fear to rage. Without suffering any serious fear to begin with, the feelings of rage and revenge seemed really misplaced. Particularly when they were being used to make policy. People should never be trying to make important decisions under duress and high emotion (this is why the living will consultation in health care is so important). The answers are almost always things we regret later.

And I long since knew that terrorism was in large part a threat best combated with intelligence and rule of law, bombs and guns only where necessary to strike decisively and with precision. I wrote on this about 2-3 years ago with attention to how a counter-insurgent campaign actually uses violence, and that's more or less where we are now. A bit late to the game.

Point is I think fear was a more powerful emotion than anger for most Americans after 9-11. And I think that fear was unjustified and provided us with a lot of bad decision making. We "reacted" too much to their movements instead of seizing the initiative and momentum that an wanton act of nihilistic destruction provided us in the international stage. I for one do not think people should be reminded of being afraid all the time. I think instead they should be reminded of how people acted on that day and the weeks after and look to those things as inspiration moving forward. I don't care for the fact that it took a major national tragedy to accomplish, but damn. People for a little while actually seemed like people.

09 September 2009

Reaction and Commentary that nobody asks for, but may fully appreciate

I have to say I wasn't really surprised.

Checking in as the speech ended on a couple of my regular blogs live reactions, I noticed the same one here on a central point of the proposed reforms.

538: "Probably smart, politically speaking, to throw both Wyden-Bennett and single payer under the bus -- but of course, the whole problem on "build[ing] on what works" is that what we have doesn't really work."

Sully: "Classic Obama pivot: describe the right and the left and then say he is in the middle. And the Burkean twist: I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch."

These two are reacting to the same line (Sully quoted it). The current system has very little which works. So preserving it by making a few (admittedly largely necessary) cosmetic repairs doesn't strike me as a particularly important issue, nor a center position of the left-right. It's a compromise that's better than doing nothing. Most reasonable ideological objections to the amount of intervention of government are based more on the inflexibility or innovation involved in doing so. From what I have seen most economists of the libertarian ilk are resigned to the inevitability of some public investment in this sector. Either in the vein of what we already have (medicare/medicaid/schip) to provide a distributional access to health care to people who cannot afford it, in the interest of public health and general happiness/productivity. Or simply accepting that transferring more generally to taxpayers the costs paid by businesses at present is still a potential improvement over a system that is already so badly lurching around expending tremendous capital and creating a gigantic drag on the competitiveness of both small business entrepreneurship (who cannot always attract the best talent without quality or affordable benefits that their competitors enjoy) and our infamous corporate titans (who can no longer afford the gold standard care they provided so generously). This has more or less been an agreement of people who have studied the issues involved carefully and thought distinctly about it that a serious reform is needed because the current system satisfies no one, costs too much, and will cost even more in future. No doubt it would be difficult, but the problems are at this point best addressed by a firm government action of some kind. If indeed in part because some of them are caused by some of our government actions prior to now. I have not seen that most of what is being proposed is a firm action. Maybe in another generation will end up somewhere where we have something that works. Maybe this will save us some of the time and money needed to make it to that point. I guess those are good reasons to support what is currently on the table.

They are certainly good reasons to see that some sensible ideas for providing what it is that everybody seems to want (namely, a quality and affordable end product of health care) are included if only so that they may be built upon. Baucus's plan has included in it a minor tax on so called Cadillac health care plans. That isn't politically popular (especially with unions), but it seems to me like a perfectly good idea because the average person who has such a plan (besides some union wage earners) can afford to pay for it and gets a substantial tax benefit for receiving this instead of income. It seems dumb to set up a system that requires people to spend their income on health care. So taxing the highest end benefits of employers (instead of wages) is both competitive for small businesses who cannot afford such things and progressively fair on taxation. Do it. It seems to me that this along with two other more trivial things may be a political sop necessary to get the rest passed into law. One is the optional delay on the public option/exchange. This is the supposed bargain needed to get Snowe's approval, combined with a McCain amendment to cover catastrophic problems in the meantime. I think this is a showy move typical of politics, and utterly useless for the bill itself in so far as improving its effect. It provides a fancy cover upon which to judge the effectiveness of a bill until long after it costs legislators something to enact it (by which I mean the time when people will have ceased to care who voted for or against it, in this cases, several years from now). The other is the tagged in position for tort reform, which Republican or conservative leaning policy wonks have insisted is causing massive inefficiencies of its own (libertarians tend to have more of a beef with employer benefits). If this was intended to attract Republican support in any significance, I doubt it will receive any. Though it will be politically useful if it does not. In so far as tort reform can be addressed and needs to be, this is fine if it passes because of a few key political detractors saying its really important. I don't expect it will pay any large dividends for controlling cost and waste (much like the hype and incentives toward preventive medicine). But it will at least serve some useful purposes and is a smart play politically.

One modest critique that occurred to me during the speech itself. His analogy on public versus private higher education made no sense at all, certainly not to explain how this proposed community exchange would function without subsidies as he intended to claim. Public colleges get a tremendous amount of subsidy from all levels of government. Private colleges even get some of course. This might be a good parallel explanation and analogy for how the present health care system works, in that it is often wasting tax payer money to line corporate profit margins or to produce inefficient outcomes in either patient care or university level education and competition, but it didn't explain at all how this proposal wasn't going to be subsidized somewhere. If you were trying to sell a reform by explaining it the way it already "works", you're probably just as confused as the American people at this point. I admit that the various bills can be interpreted as having no specific subsidy poured into the public exchange (ie, people who will be receiving tax credits could just as easily take their tax credit somewhere else, assuming they will want to). But he couldn't have picked a better analogy for it?

To counter my negativity and cynicism over the politics involved I liked this line (so apparently did lots of others) "I don't want to demonize insurance companies--I just want to hold them accountable." Since it looks pretty much the only major reforms involved are in the business practices for insurers operating in bad faith within a specific set of confusing regulatory tangles, monopolistic economics of scale, third party payments, and significant information asymmetry, this is both a great line and a real true political thing that is essential to the reforms at all.

One final point that I caught during the speech but didn't realize had any significance was the heckler over the "insuring illegal immigrants" issue (I wanted to use 4 i's in row there, good times). I wasn't surprised that it happened. There's definitely some goofy people over there in the GOP hierarchy these days. But what I hadn't realized was that it was so entrenched a position that many Republicans choose to voice their opposition in the first place (booing or whatever that was), or that outright heckling of the speech is a traditional non-issue. The Congressman in question was (so far as I know right now) from South Carolina (Joe Wilson). Seems to me we have a bit of history with crazy political ideas and sort of heckling of national policies in South Carolina by now. Sometimes I wonder if we might have been better off if we just let it form their own damn country and see how well off that went without the rest of us paying to support their stupidity in political questions.

While I am no great fan of Pelosi, her reaction to it was classic shock and immediate rage. If nothing else, that guy may expect a whopping good time trying to defend his seat if they can raise somebody halfway competent in South Carolina to run against him. Because I fully expect the Democratic party would fund such a run to the gills after an outburst like that. Watch her in the background.


Fairly accurate. But I'm concerned that it doesn't seem as comical in a comic format like this. Maybe the adage "you couldn't make this stuff up" no longer applies to anything anymore. Because clearly people could make just about anything up and have it conform to reality without any evidence to support it.

Also, the watermelon at the end was quite the good touch. There's clearly almost no basis in this unhinged fear that isn't creeping in from some level of racism or racist stereotypes. I still haven't figured out why watermelon is supposedly a racially charged food to begin with (Chappelle wisdom: "Is this a bad thing? There is something wrong with you if you don't like fried chicken and watermelon"). But it suffices as a clear and expressive symbol of the sort of suppressed or implicit racism of the most virulent anti-Obama notions. With the teabaggers craziness, get back to me when you have a plan worth listening to (instead of tossing out assertions of socialism and a sudden paranoid fear of the national debt that never crossed your mind when Reagan+W were running up deficits, largely out of "national security" spending). But in this case, I don't expect "birthers" ever to emerge into a pattern of normalcy. The best option is to simply ignore their bleating nonsense and allow public interest to wither and die. As was done with Birchers in the 50s and 60s. I'm somewhat steadied that there is an active, but so far small, contingent of the GOP's base of support that seems ready to combat this nonsense by insisting that the party as a whole deny its support for it.

Even if I have no real interest in the social conservative visions that they want to impose as law, I at least want a rational and intellectually based opponent in national politics capable of articulating its views without resorting to childhood screaming matches posing as political acumen. Primarily my interest is to insist on at least one of the two major parties that acts accountable on government spending and expansion. If it was the Democrats instead (they get half credit by tending to control deficits when we have the time to control them), I'd be more inclined to lend consistent support to them. Since it is the Republicans who have somehow claimed this mantle (and tended to ignore it in practice), I am forced to insist that they restore their vitality as a political entity. Even when I'll almost never vote for it. Insanity should be sometimes tolerated, but never supported. Credible and sane objections can be raised by economic or political conservative views. And when we get more of them, I will be happy to support some of them, argue with some others, and certainly to witness the revivification of the political system when it has two or more significant factions competing over ideas instead of idiotic claims like the birchers and birthers make (and to a somewhat lesser, but still highly amusing extent, teabaggers).

bits and pieces

somebody else's links around

I think there are two factors on the college graduation issue.
1) Lots of people who are in college who have no business being there. I would consider college a waste of time for someone of average intelligence. And there are plenty of such people who end up in a college class room.
2) Even considering we have rapidly expanded the number of "colleges" in the country, this has not kept pace with the number of people seeking to enter a college. The incentive get everyone a college degree in any field seems sort of useless as a result and serves mostly to drive up the cost (cost of higher education has expanded faster than even health care and suffers from the same supposed biases, somebody else is usually perceived as paying for it) by expanding considerably the demand for colleges. Which in turn, reduces the ability of some otherwise qualified intelligent people of finishing their schooling.

And I stick to the self-checkout lanes for groceries. Even when I have dozens of items they never seem to mind (this could be because it's about 2 in the morning when I tend to go grocery shopping for anything other than fresh meats or produce). I don't understand how they find so much variance in credit transactions (I must be underestimating the stupidity of the gene pool again), but I can imagine that cash could go very fast when people are on the ball about it too.

03 September 2009


This has been making the rounds on social networking, etc.

There are several problems.

1) There isn't a bill in front of Congress to do anything like what it suggests should be done. More over there isn't even enough popular (much less corporate and medical lobbying) support to get a bill like that introduced into Congress. Consider how much resistance taxing employer benefits or, to a lesser extent, the half-breed of a public option have encountered. Then imagine how well actually putting into the public an actual radical overhaul, in either direction, would go over. To put it mildly, I have only faint hopes that anything sensible will emerge anyway. But I have no hopes that anything useful will (and for the purposes of this argument, useful might even include a universal single-payer system).

2) Out of all the arguments for a nationalized health care system, the demagoguery of profits is probably the worst one possible to make. Non-profit administration of something does not necessarily make it efficient or provide optimal social results. In fact, quite often it is one of the worst ways possible to provide an optimal result. See: road congestion pricing versus present or education cost inflation.

3) More over, the entire problem of non-profit does not actually address the issue of cost. To my mind the highly inflating future projected cost is probably the foremost reason to address this issue with any reform to begin with, with some safe assumptions being that reducing inflating costs to a modest inflationary rate can bring it in line with people who cannot presently afford health care or health care insurance. "Free" in slogans does not equal free in economics. This has a cost to someone somewhere. Some of these costs are hidden or are opportunity costs (costs of sacrificing innovation or research). Some of those can be recaptured. Other costs are not so obvious but become apparent when you examine the health care issue as a portion of the general economy. A large portion. Every dollar which is spent on health care becomes a dollar that is not spent on something else. Such as education, police, infrastructure, military, whatever your preference. If our dollars on health care are not spent wisely and efficiently to begin with, something our present government programs do not do, then we have all sorts of major distortions in other price markets.

4) Now it might be sensible to argue that consumers really want to spend one-sixth of their incomes on their health care needs as they do presently. But if that's the case, they should be receiving a greater, more transparent, and more obvious value for the money they spent in terms of health care outcomes (which we do not). And they should also consider that lots of places, even places with universal single payer plans, spend a lot less than we do. Maybe people in Singapore just don't care as much about health care as an industry, but spending about 3-4% of the entire economy on health care sounds more reasonable to me than 15-18% and counting. It's probable that a healthy balance can or would be struck somewhere in between 3 and 18% and that this balance would result in a greater value and great health overall anyway. People just aren't spending their money on health care outcomes right now at all. And I have not seen a strong case that they would do so any better with the government footing the bill instead of private markets (preventive care does not even rely on a government system, it's just difficult to do in our current heavily regulated and largely insurance funded system).

5) Health care, to me anyway, has yet to be demonstrated to be either essential or a right. I think a strong case can be made that health as a component of general well-being and happiness could be construed as an essential right. And that protecting the general health of the citizenry would be construed as a legitimate function of the government, such as by using environmental or safety regulations. It does not automatically follow that health care, defined as a large and expanding bubble of goods and services, is a human right. In opposition to something like food, which we cannot survive at all without, health care is not a basic necessity for someone. It is, in effect, a consumer good which people choose how much or what kind to consume.

6) There are distributional problems with the way access to health care occurs which can be viewed as suboptimal for the provision of public health. And I accept that this means we should probably have some form of government health care (or a subsidy for private health care) for people who cannot afford it. But this is not the same as claiming some sort of provisional right to distribute health care as we see fit to ourselves. I agree completely that people really seem to want health care and therefore should be able to find access in the event of emergencies that require treatment (cancer, broken bones, etc). That's why insurance exists in the first place: emergencies. It isn't that difficult to expand access to people who cannot afford the cost of insurance. But this is not the same as a suggesting a requirement for single-payer health insurance.