30 January 2010

random question of the day

What's the worst movie ever?

Judged not by the logic of "this is a terrible film", because something like Dungeon Siege would win this by default. The problem with those is that they become so bad, so awful, that there is a sort of therapy involved in the obvious poor quality of it. The "so awful it is awesome" category of film. The thread there references every Michael Bay film, but I would argue that, after you've seen one such movie (particularly Armageddon or Pearl Harbor, maybe the Rock as well), you basically know that these are not serious movies and are only to be seen for the purposes of mocking their stupidity and to observe several repetitive elements: large amounts of explosions, dialogue written by a 4 year old, and women utterly useless to the plot tossed around as eye candy. Once you accept that this is the formula that made Bond movies (after Goldfinger) successful for a generation but usually without some Scottish or English chappie doing the throwaway dialogue lines, it becomes predictable enough to avoid seeing in the first place.

I'm not entirely sure what I'd say here as the "worst movie ever", but the "best", most well-regarded, movie I have in my DVD archive that I have some larger reservations over having now is probably Crash. It gets worse every time I've seen it. I'm assuming Titanic would win some nods here (except I don't have any interest in it). Eventually, once people get over the graphics, I would guess Avatar will as well (again, not very interested). My best guess at what I would say the worst movie I've ever seen would be the first Star Wars prequel. I'm not sure what Stewart and Lucas are talking about with this supposed generation of younger fans that liked those 3 movies better during Lucas' interview on the Daily Show (there's no evidence of this in the votes over at imdb or metacritic at least to suggest that they were not just making this up to annoy people like me), but wow that was awful. It's been on cable here recently a couple times and watching any of it now it reverts into the "this is so bad it is awesome" movie, except that it's a Star Wars movie and carried an expectation of being at least half as decent as Return of the Jedi (clearly the worst of the actual 3 Star Wars films).

Movies brought up in the thread there: I remember seeing Eyes Wide Shut and my companions were quite confused as we exited the theater (in the same way that people were incredibly annoyed at the end of No Country). I would not watch it again by choice (Tom Cruise factor weighs heavily against it), but I don't remember it being a pointless and incoherent film. Of course I'm not sure that the fact that I got the themes of jealousy and obsessions meant I was capable of explaining them to people very well at the time either. Not sure what the vibe against Lost in Translation is over there either. Bill Murray can't act like himself for every movie he ever does (which he does). I'd agree that he got too much attention for that film for not acting like himself for most of the movie. But it's sort of like the inverse of Training Day where Denzel got a lot of deserved attention for carrying what is otherwise a pretty weak and forgettable film which ought to have been a lot better (incidentally I think this applies to every Fuqua film, Tears of the Sun should have been a lot better as well, same with that awful King Arthur movie). Basically I thought the movie and story carried an average Murray performance and made it look a lot better than it really was. That was, for me at least, a rather potent story about being isolated or adrift and unable to connect to others in a world that is chock of people.

I do however second the entire Spider Man trilogy as terrible (I have not seen the third at all and neither of the first or second the entire way through). I recall people having said they exited the theaters where people had cheered at the end of the film (the only movie I've had this happen at was Dark Knight. Though I assume LOTR movies were all too fucking long for most people to have the energy to clap still). I remember changing the channel when it appeared on HBO. They weren't even worth watching the whole way through when I basically could watch them for free. It is pretty tough apparently to craft a decent comic book movie. First two X-Men movies were good (the third was like the third Godfather movie, we should all just pretend it was never made at all), the two recent Batman movies were awesome (though Maggie gets tiresome in the second she's basically a forgettable character anyway so I'm not sure how much to dock that), Iron Man was good, first Superman movie is a classic, but then there's Hulk, the Fantastic Four movies, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Spider Man 1-3, every other Superman movie..... In the same way that science fiction movies need a bit of suspension to accept an alternative world, you then can't have within that an alternative world that contains large gory plot holes and contrived dialogue or conflicts for its characters.

I would also second most of Robin Williams films, particularly anything post-Good Will Hunting. Though those at least have the good sense to usually be obviously bad and avoidable. Stick to stand-up and improv.

I am awaiting an onion-style headline on this one

Because this would be sweet

An earthquake causing weapon?

Why do the accusations of our enemies or their media resemble bad movie plots? And I'm not sure what the Canadians were thinking either (doesn't make any sense that the country was going to be rallied behind Obama because of an earthquake somewhere else. A Canadian paper or whatever should follow our politics at least a little better than Osama bin Laden, you would think).

But basically the really funny part is to look at conspiracy theories, like those, and the amount of thought that goes into forming them, and the amount of stupidity that is required for them to stick around. Which makes the stuff that came out about how to break these things up (the Sunstein approach discussed at the end, or the Bush administration approach to the Iraq war that was left curiously unmentioned) seem incredibly silly. Just let people hang themselves when they say stupid things that aren't grounded in reality or troublesome things like "facts". I guess it's important in other countries to have evidence that Americans are not going around harvesting the organs of orphaned children. But it would seem like in most cases it would be sufficient to simply ask why they would even think we're doing that in the first place (other than that wealthy and famous Americans go around the globe scooping up orphans to adopt).

Other weird news. Apparently we can't have a trial in NYC now for terrorists. I understand precisely zero of the objections to doing this, having trials to begin with or having them in NYC, as sensible. I suspect there is a worldview under which perhaps some of them would make sense, except the people who are on TV all the time advocating this supposed worldview did use civilian trials against terrorism suspects and did have them in NYC (and did get convictions and did not provide convictions or a "stage" for them to spout propaganda). So that whole thing gets sort of weird when you have "thoughts" of your own and start examining the record of this country vis a vis terrorism. The natural reaction I have to the fact that the government appears to be "changing" its mind on this issue and moving the trial is to ask why we thus appear to be taking directions from people whose political and strategic ideas on conducting intelligence and counter-terrorism operations and hence maintaining a system of rule of law closely resembles the system one would get if you allowed it to be run by the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. At least prior to him receiving a brain and the knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem at the end of the film. I might be willing to listen to that combustible and triple-jointed bundle of hay's advice over Cheney's or Rudy Giuliani's at this point anyway.

29 January 2010

Good riddance

Roeder verdict

28 January 2010

variations of sexual mores

I doubt it matters much but this seems like the relative moral equivalencies of sexual acts. I'm not sure why I bother, but it amuses me to consider moral and ethical boundaries from time to time and to describe them in gory detail.

Assume that pretty much every one of these is "a physical erotic action undertaken by..."
1) persons expressing a consensual and equal moral, physical, and emotional bonding of intimacy through that act. Issues of consent weigh heavily upon the likelihood that this action is morally acceptable, such that it is unlikely to find actions between persons of adulthood both in physical age and maturity and persons of immaturity, both in physical or mental age as morally acceptable. On occasion such morally permissible or impermissible actions will be legal or illegal because it is impossible for the state to assume that persons above or below arbitrary ages have appropriately developed their emotional state to accommodate such physical activities as expressions of intimate feeling. I can make no assumptions that the persons involved are legally bonded to one another, nor bonded by sanctioned rituals, or any other outwardly expressed motives. The entire basis of the moral claims to perform erotic acts with one another is a (mutual) desire to express intimate feeling in a physical manner at that moment. It is possible however that this desire will include damages and harms to unrelated parties to the event itself, such as legal spouses or previous pair bonds that are non-mutually dissolving. I can also make no determination that such actions should only be made between heterosexual couplings, or even couplings solely limited to two party sexual acts or any one particular variety of said couplings. Where homosexual or multiple partners or positions are deemed unacceptable by one party participating, presumably unwillingly, then it is indeed a moral failing. If the actions are consented to, which is admittedly not a common occurrence for all such variations of sexual activity, it is not.
2)Likewise, while I feel it is appropriate morally, such physical actions by persons both mutually below such ages of consent are often little more than experimentation. Such actions would still reach a moral basis on the grounds that they are physical actions between consenting persons for the purposes of mutual physical pleasures. It could be assumed that an intimate bonding as labeled above would include such a lesser purpose as mutual and temporary pleasures.
3) Persons wishing to provide physical pleasure to another party for the purpose of extracting some favor in return. This may vary between an expectation of reciprocation at a later time, expectations of romantic or other intimate bonds to be formed that have not yet as expressed in either sexual or non-sexual ways in the future, or a simple extraction of concessions in the form of property.
4) Persons wishing to procreate. Biologically this is indeed of central importance, but given human proclivities to sexual activity, it's not exactly central to human behavior. Nor is it deemed essential to human pair bonding for the purposes of recognizing our intimate bonds through the state mechanisms (ie, legal contracts like marriage) or our social institutions and rituals. As such it should not be elevated morally above other purposes. But because it involves moral decisions regarding the care and division of labour concerning the creation of new life, it should still carry some weigh upon our consideration of the act itself as a generally good and decent act. Providing it follows the moral imperatives expressed above it. To the extent that this can be done naturally, it follows that the parties involved would be of opposing sex and in each others physical presence at the time and ideally observing some standards set forth above. To the extent that human beings have developed artificial methods, it does not require all of them, though perhaps at least the third standard would apply, with at worst a concession of property for the donation of biological material for the purpose of breeding it with others.
5) persons expressing fantastic acts only through a mental state and without willing partners being present. I place this here not because it expresses some immoral quantity of action but because it lacks much moral potential at all to internalize our desires without an accompanying sentiment of real action afflicting other human beings in those desires. There is a moral quality where these fantastic settings are visually accompanied, such as to violate the actual privacy of others or to demand and seek the debasement of others (in an only partially compensated manner) for private amusement. But this is not a requirement of such activity in the same manner that non-consensual acts are not a requirement of partnered sexual activity.

of the more immodest qualities, which I hesitate to so rank
1a) persons imposing their will upon unwilling or non-consensual participants for the extraction of their own physical or emotional pleasures at the expense of the pain, suffering or humiliation of others. This would include most mature-immature sexual consorts but probably not most immature-immature consorts.
2a) persons extracting physical pleasures from others with no expectations of reciprocation in any manner and no performed act to compensate these demonstrations on the part of other parties.
3a) violations of privacy or dignity without compensation or participation clearly expressed in a consensual manner (such as recording or viewing the private acts, of any kind including many or most non-sexual acts, of others without consent).
4a) non-consensual reproductive demands. This would include only intentional actions designed to defeat birth control methods being undertaken by one or both parties under mutual arrangements, or at least arrangements demanded by one party to the act, previous to the act itself. "Accidental pregnancy", that is non-mutually planned and desired, and its related child bearing is common enough and contains, usually, no malicious intentions or designs.

I would think these sentiments are easily described by what they signal to the various parties involved
1) respect, admiration, affection
1a) disrespect, abuse, power
2) desire, appreciation, respect
2a) power, abuse, coercion for private interest without due consideration
3) coercion involving mutual interests
3a) abuse, disrespect, invasion
and so on.

Primarily why I bother to enumerate things like this is to get people to realize that what we consider rather simple ethical problems are not in fact very simple and straightforward in the forms and judgments to which we must apply them in real life. The basic virtues of respect and affections and consensual aims are easy enough to recognize in practice. But they must be consistently applied rather than the haphazard means usually deployed to establish societal rules, most commonly through "revealed" ethics as laid down by cultural heritage and tradition. Tradition, where it has established effective rules, should only be forcibly maintained where those rules portend to the establishment of a just society and permit reasonable and consistent actions on the part of its citizenry. Hypocritical or incomplete traditions, such as those which establish and maintain supremacy rather than recognize some basic level of equality and dignity for example, should be consistently re-examined to discern their utility.

tebow ad, tebow version and some other things that occurred to me as necessary to say

My initial encounter with that whole kerfuffle was, as I mentioned, through PTI. So naturally their question was whether the public stance on a controversial issue would affect his football career. My immediate reaction: why did they even bother to ask this question?

I realize that all sports fans learned from Major League that Je-sus can no hit the curveball (neither, for that matter, can Jobu), but the Athletics just had a pitching prospect give up baseball to become a priest. And a bunch of the top players are from the Caribbean, where Catholicism is still king, so it's not like they have some absence of strong religious convictions in that sport. Same deal in football. In fact it's pretty hard not to find a post-game interview with some derivation of "the good lord tripped me up behind the line of scrimmage" or "Jesus made me drop the ball". Err, well probably not that direction, but something referencing the mysterious concerns of their personal lord and savior in the affairs of a Sunday afternoon (isn't that supposed to be a day off for their god anyway?) sporting event conducted by highly paid and pampered athletes.

It's probably more likely that that would be a question worth asking if Tebow came out as an atheist or, in a team sport, as a homosexual. Evangelical Christians are frequently mocked and derided in public circles and sometimes held in contempt for their political views, but they're hardly a group that needs to worry about mass prejudice against their expressed beliefs and behavior, particularly from sports fans. Even I don't worry about them apart from the hypocrisies that emerge or the sometimes outrageous things that are said publicly. But if that's what people need or want to live their lives, so be it. And most people do not actively concern themselves with the religious implications of rooting for their particular team or its players' religious views. I remember being somewhat ambivalent about Dwight Howard because of his view on replacing the Logo for the NBA with a Christian cross. And then he started dunking on everyone and wearing a cape and I realized that 1) he was just a kid in a 6'10/260 pound body with freakish athleticism and 2) nobody else was going to listen to him because Jerry West is still there and other than MJ, nobody is even on the radar for taking that logo away anytime soon. I do think his religious focus, similar to David Robinson, will probably mean that he needs somebody else to be an "alpha dog" on his team to ever win a title. But I don't hold his expressions or protestations of the importance of faith against him as a sports fan. I don't imagine that Tebow would suffer some alternate fate. His problem won't be his positions on abortion or his protestations of faith. It will be how accurate his throwing arm is for an NFL team, or some other evaluation of his skill as an athlete.

What I am having trouble examining is a discussion concerning bias and discrimination against groups who are more likely to suffer from it. I don't dare imagine the indignities and epithets that are spewed at people because of the colour of their skin, their Mexican accents, the turban or hijab on one's head, or of having a homosexual lover, and so on are at all equivalent to the situation I find myself in. I came instead to the simple conclusion that being part of an invisible minority is an enormous boon in any society. The "majority" people look at me and make assumptions that I belong to their associations because "I'm a white male aged 18-45 and everyone listens to me no matter how dumb my ideas are". They assume, quite strangely, that I must like a particular variety of music, or go to some local church, and so on, because I tend to look like they do and don't have any obvious weird behaviors. I guess, for the most part, that this is okay because it doesn't close any doors to me (and I do that quite well enough on my own with anti-social behavior). What bothers me about is that I keep seeing poll after poll, and conversation after conversation, often taking place right in front of me about how someone like me is to be regarded as untrustworthy or lesser. When nearly 50% of the population would not approve of me as a spouse for their child (daughters, my "enlightened" sensibilities about human sexuality notwithstanding, I do have my own preferences. This is also not intended to communicate a demand or desire for spousal relationships personally but merely to remark about the prejudicial judgments of others toward people who might but share with me a single remarkable characteristic that in someway disqualifies them, I think unjustly), that seems like a problem worth pointing out. That until they would discover the fact I am an atheist (and not inclined to change my mind in the absence of evidence), I'm pretty much a normal person as far as they know and care to know. A little too pensive or bookish and aloof, but basically decent. When more people can openly express the fact that they despise or mistrust people whose only difference is that they privately express and hold no belief in any deity than they openly hold biases and prejudices against people who have different skin colours or worship that deity by the name of Allah, I think, given the way many people who have different skin colour and call their god Allah have fared in this country and elsewhere in the Euro-centric world, I should even be concerned for my safety and well-being. I suppose it's possible that the tolerance expressed for people from other countries or ethnicities and other faiths in a largely Caucasian/Christian country is faked, and that many people privately hold such prejudices very strongly but do not admit to them because they have been appropriately stigmatized as unjust or wrong. But when you look at the general attitude shift toward a nominally stigmatized group like homosexuals or blacks over the history of the country and the relative progress each group has made at guaranteeing their individuals rights and privileges equal in the law, and then see that there hasn't been hardly any needle shifting in the open and public attitudes toward atheists over that same time frame, that argument doesn't seem to hold up.

I'm not sure however what exactly I should expect society to want to do about this. It seems mostly like more people need to be aware and openly converse and fess up to their lack of faith so that society becomes aware that this absence is not filled up by some demonic possession or prayers to their devil instead of their god. That in general secular people find morals rather useful functional things that are just as hard to live up to with or without any core faith to guide them. That public protestations of a faith or otherwise, particularly by celebrities or public officials, are actually hollow things that only rarely provide much insight into the framework and judgments of a person and therefore should afford very little calculation into the trustworthiness of that person in performing a service on our behalf or even as a window into their private domain (should we be of the "normal" American gawking culture). It appears that the shorthand of "he is a Christian" did not matter as it does now in our public discourse. Perhaps it was merely assumed as it appears people continue to assume when they encounter me. But to the extent it was rendered unnecessary to offer up validations of one's religious beliefs in expressing public sentiments, that seemed like a fine policy. To the extent that this is no longer the case, it would seem most appropriate for atheists to "unite" in expressing that they hold their "peculiar" notions of religious belief, or rather the lack thereof (and most commonly the complete lack of interest in, inquisitive atheists like myself not with standing). Sure some nutjobs will be out there to make "us" look bad, but it's not like religious people are free of this problem anymore than we would be.

Perhaps it is too much to expect people's hatreds and biases to be based on a rational view of the world, or centering on the quality of character of others. This is entirely possible. It is, among many, many other views about human beings and their societal structures, something I would dearly like to be proven overly cynical about.

Current Top 20 NCAA

(Breaks are where there are larger breaks in the rankings)
1) Kansas
2) Duke (How they're ahead of Cuse? but top 5 I can still see)
3) Syracuse

4) Texas
5) BYU (loss to New Mexico doesn't hurt as much as I thought it might)
6) West Virginia

7) Wisconsin and Purdue
9) Kentucky (overrated. Terrible on the road, does not bode well in March)
10) Kansas St
11) Villanova

12) Tennessee
13) Missouri
14) Michigan St
15) Ohio St
16) Georgetown
17) Maryland
18) Clemson (slumping, but to be expected in the ACC if you aren't Duke or Carolina)

19) Baylor
20) Marquette

Georgia Tech, California and Minnesota are right after those last two. At present Bracketology doesn't have Minnesota or Marquette even in the field and has Maryland as a 13 seed. It's pretty fluid out there in late January, but ouch.

Overrated watch: North Carolina isn't even in my NCAA field now, even with the NC St win the other day on the road. UConn win over Texas puts them back in the top 30. Their ranking doesn't look as absurd now. Gonzaga looks like the next team on the chopping block for "overrated-ness"

Ivy League might be able to get two teams in. Doesn't happen very often.

27 January 2010

sotu

538 called this a 3 run homer and had called the previous health care speech a solid triple. I think the second judgment is closer to accurate, but I'm not actually inclined to think that the former will turn out wrong either. It might be a solo home run depending on how the politics actually play out, but it was definitely a better speech.

Several things I enjoyed.
The reference to the fact that the budgetary tightening doesn't take place for another year was a good laugh line. Gallows humor or cynicism has its moments I guess. The jab over the lack of GOP applause for tax cuts in the stimulus bill (something they wanted at the time) was more amusing.

Finally made strong affirmative declarations in support of ending DADT and the Iraq war. We'll see how those pan out. I supported both decisions and it appears most Americans at this point do.

Did the Reagan trick of talking about actual people (though he did not use many names). Always good politics since most people trust stories more than statistics.
Also tied Reagan-JFK on the nuclear weapons stuff. Reducing arms still needs to be an important topic. I'm not sure why Republicans would still support having several thousand warheads.

Sort of vague explanation of his forthcoming education reforms that still doesn't sound any more fleshed out than it was during the campaign. But it doesn't quite sound very Democratic candidate-esque either. Sounds a bit more like a libertarian here with an emphasis on school choice and some mechanism for evaluation of educational quality (I personally prefer a market evaluation because I'm unimpressed with the means governments have used of late, such as NCLB).

The banking fee, if it is a too big to fail fee, is fine if we're going to keep the model of big banks and the FDIC guarantee of safety or risk assumed by the public. The down note is that Dodd can still kill and gut the banking bill in the Senate. Might have been better to make this a focus of last year or even wait until Dodd hits his retirement and do it next year.

Explained somewhat more clearly that the problems that are being wrestled with aren't going away just because 1) GOP obstructs policy "reforms" and 2) because he was elected and 3) didn't start because he was elected. I was not really sated in the need for the stimulus and bailouts (mostly because I would rather he had some tougher questions directed at Bernanke concerning making non-expansive monetary policy choices over the past year and leaving us only doing Keynesian stimulus spending and direct lending to particular banks. FDR did both Keynes program and expansive monetary policy during his first term and, when he picked that plan and stuck to it for more than a few weeks, it seemed to have helped), but I expect some people will be. Not a lot but some. The explanation that much of the fiscal problem over the last year and into this year comes from bad policies over the last 8 years is nevertheless essential because it requires that the GOP take ownership of their mistakes and work to reverse them in some ways. The question will be whether they are aware of the fact that voters are probably aware of this problem as well and won't simply reward them for being the party out of power. I don't think they have figured this out yet, though it's possible that Brown has (because he has some weird political realities in Massachusetts that most Republicans won't have).

Couple things I was less swayed by:
Not so sure what the hell the public thinks Congress (and the President) is supposed to do that creates (or saves) jobs. But damn if he wasn't talking about jobs all the time in there. Does he have a switch under his desk that I'm not aware of or something that just turns on the jobs spigot? Despite all the jobs bluster, did not mention the idea brought up in the Senate to have a payroll tax holiday for new hires. Admittedly it's an imperfect, perhaps even foolish idea on its own. I would have preferred a simple payroll tax cut rather than a one year exclusion only for new hires, which may have more unintended consequences than punching another hole in the deficit for short-term economic gains. But it's a helluva lot better than "green jobs" for "creating or saving" jobs in real economic terms. "Green jobs" in real economic terms means a lot of jobs, that is real people working and getting paid for it, are destroyed. In the long run yes, we would benefit from a less resource dependent and energy efficient society. But selling a bill of goods that it will somehow improve the unemployment situation is false. And his broader examples of jobs saved I noticed were mostly public services (cops, teachers, prison workers, etc). That's not to say we don't need good cops and teachers and so on right now more, but those are not jobs that the government ought to get credit for "saving". Because they are government jobs in the first place.

Energy/climate policy is going to depend a lot on coordination with the rest of the G20 and mostly with China in particular than it will on the Senate. The actual energy policy that he laid out sounded a lot more like McCain's. Which in terms of getting something done is probably very good. In terms of there being a meaningful energy reform, like a carbon tax (not "cap-trade" like the House passed which is a joke), it is probably very bad.

Health care reform is back up to 50% on intrade. I was pretty sure it was not dead after Brown won in Massachusetts and that Obama would probably rally for it with this speech, which he did I thought. After looking at the mechanisms that they can use to pass it anyway in spite of the filibuster in the Senate (reconciliation), it may end up being an uglier bill in a few ways (for example by carving out an exclusion for unions but not other middle class people on the "Cadillac" health plans, which I believe neither should get one) and will probably mean that the concessions that Lieberman and Nelson and Stupak wanted will be killed. On balance that doesn't mean I will approve of the final bill. I think it could use some tougher cost controls and some tougher love for most people to more equitably share some of the cost of their non-catastrophic medical costs (by allowing for HSAs rather than establishing "minimal coverage limits"). Nevertheless I will stand by my own prediction that health care in some version will still pass and I think the speech probably will tilt it in that direction. In so far as I approve of the fact they are attacking the issue and need to continue to attack it for our long-term economic stability, that's good. In so far as I think they are tending to attack in a modestly progressive agenda, with a program that looks something like Switzerland or Massachusetts (but not England or Canada) instead of leaning toward Singapore, that's not so good. In large measure because Swiss and Romneycare are more expensive than even the UK and Canadian systems and it doesn't seem to hurt our system when it does actually behave like a market (which is rare). But I realize that's also just my weird libertarian preference for markets over central planning talking. I also think that he could have made a stronger argument that fixing health care even slightly would be helpful for our overall market efficiency (if not health care itself), in particular for people in the middle class or who have small businesses. I don't think that happened. Maybe it will over the next week or two.

Civil rights stuff that has passed does tend to get overlooked (equal pay and hate crimes, one of which I'm on board with and the second I'm ambivalent about), but I did not like the skipping right over point "relitigating the past" (concerning things like Gitmo). The appeals to our higher ideals are important, and they are powerful weapons that should never be discarded in the broader campaign against terrorists. But it would be more helpful if we lived up to them once in a while. A clearer and possibly transparent way (at least within the three branches of government, if not the public at large) to make decisions concerning the detention status of captured suspects would be one enormous step rather than leaving such decisions and the powers which enable them only within the executive branch. As would some nudge and appearance of accountability for abuses of that authority, starting with the Seton Hall exposed cover-up of the deaths of three (scheduled to be released) inmates in Guantanamo. I want some answers. I will not be impressed with stories like Mark McGwire's "I'm not here to talk about the past". It's pretty clear that we're willing (and should) talk about the past to discover how our economy ended up in shambles. Why shouldn't we talk about our foreign policy and its related domestic security policies?

Calling out the SCOTUS decision that I happened to approve of, because I happen to think that First Amendment is really neat, even when it applies to evil mean corporations that I despise and silly religious organisations that I share few, if any, ideals and practices with. Not cool Mr President. The part that is strange about that: Most Democrats are actually okay with that decision, even though their politicians and liberal SCOTUS members weren't. I don't think he needs to pander to independents too much. We can occasionally recognize he's got a D after the name on the ballot. And if they're independents because they're sort of libertarian like me or constitutionalists like a Ron Paul type, I don't think they're all that pissed about that decision either. I think I'm just taken by surprise by the DC reaction to this one. Also in the firm camp of things I really wish he would never say is the part where he bashed corporations who send their jobs overseas and those damned Chinese and Germans and Indians. I like America, I happen to think we have usually a pretty good deal in terms of rights and freedoms and the possibilities of wealth-making for individuals. But that doesn't mean I think that the jobs that we are "shipping overseas" are things that Americans are entitled to, ought to do, do better than, and thus should return instead of staying over there. I say good riddance to a customer service job or to a data entry position. I've done those. Those jobs suck.

Final point.
I'm not totally sure where I come down on the hope-idealism about America stuff. The stories that tied into the help in Haiti (the chants of US after firefighters pulled people from destroyed buildings are remarkable in a way that reminds one strongly of the 9-11 culture of unity and compassion that America can be capable of, when it lets itself. Which is sadly usually in moments of tremendous grief and suffering). But I am also incredibly cynical about people in general and political processes in particular. I call this realism as opposed to optimism. So it's hard for me to feel "good" about what we could be when I see a tremendous gap between that and what we are. But it's also harder for me to sell it to other people as a necessity when I can't quite describe examples of it. I suppose I can outsource the sunny optimism to the President and poke a few of the balloons with my needling criticisms on the way out the door.

Full Text of the speech itself

So far as I can tell, I would imagine that Obama did little to sway people who already firmly dislike him for some reason, and a little bit to reassure some of the people who loved him and probably a good deal to sway the people whose confidence in Obama specifically (though not in Congress or either party) was shaken over the last few months and weeks (supposedly these are independent voters). I thought personally it was a pretty good speech. But I don't think you would say I was blown away by any of the ideas as they were presented in it and thus swayed off my own little wacky economic porch.

PS: I watched the thing on CSPAN, who apparently didn't feel necessary to pan away to the Alito gesturing and consternation at the rebuke Obama delivered over the SCOTUS's decision. I don't actually mind the President issuing such a rebuke, but I disagreed with it on the issue involved, thus I found it rather silly. Had I seen Alito's eye-rolling, I would have found that more questionable still however. They had ample opportunity to cite the precise "foreign influences" that Obama and Alito seemed most concerned about in the majority and dissenting opinions. If Obama wants to grandstand over that point, let him. It's not like he can or needs to do anything about the ruling. But don't become a dick when there's actually something of a reason for the SCOTUS justices to be apolitical and unemotional at these events. Joe Wilson can scream all he wants because people can vote him out of office if he becomes an ass. Samuel Alito cannot be replaced at the whims of the public and serves an apolitical function in government. That means there's a higher standard of protocol.

Things that make me say huh?

I guess they should change the law to say "sitting while intoxicated".

Reminds me of the line: "looking for a man who was recently drunk milk".

tebow v abortion

I'm not sure if I am late to this party since I just heard about this yesterday on PTI and a couple blog notes, but it appears that there will be a Super Bowl ad putatively about abortion. Since I am by now, an acknowledged person to stick my nose into difficult and divisive issues and pen a thousand words or two, I may as well use this opportunity. So far as I can tell from the description of the advertisement itself, it is not an abortion ad, but it is being run by a organisation that has a record of being staunchly anti-choice/pro-life. To the extent that I care about this issue, that actually does not offend or matter to me. People who hold different views than I do are entitled to air those views, even to pay for them to be aired on national television with the expectation that people might be watching and might pay attention. To the extent that there should be any controversy over this issue at current, it appears to be something that should be taken up with CBS's policy of commercial advertisements not being over objectionable or controversial material, which a commercial putatively about abortions would probably be safely regarded as one or both of those things. I think what CBS appears to be doing, which I do not agree with and which deserves to be richly questioned, is appealing to the fact that the actual commercial appears more to be about the less controversial aspect of "having children" rather than "aborting fetuses", using the rather unusual moral compass that appears backwards from the usual football advertisement (the beer commercial with many scantily clad women hanging off of marginally attractive and usually stupid men). That is, rather than have an objectionable commercial about a mundane subject matter created by an unobjectionable corporate body, they have a mundane commercial about an objectionable topic created by an often objectionable corporate lobbying group. To the extent that CBS is toeing a very strange line, I agree this deserves some attention and argument.

But the actual line of argument that the commercial raises (so far as I can tell) doesn't seem like one that is actually controversial nor is it even a central component to the abortion question in this country.
Basically what it comes down is this
1) Pro-life people tend to hold that abortion is murder, that human life is precious and begins at fertilization, and that ending it voluntarily should be held as a crime (with some exceptions carved out in the event that life was created involuntarily through rape or incest or that life endangers the life of the mother herself). To the extent that this is the pro-life argument, I'm actually not that bothered because this is a pretty basic and important categorical moral thought: "that killing people is bad". I disagree on some crucial metaphysical grounds in that I don't care about vague metaphysical justifications in the absence of empirical proofs that life begins when they say it does and I therefore think women are entitled to decide when their child's life begins for themselves as prospective parents. Up until the live birth at which point it is pretty obvious that a life has begun because we ennoble such births with immediate legal rights. But since that is, so far as I am concerned, their strongly held opinion and belief, it does not bother me and should not in fact bother any one else (simply because someone who doesn't want to have abortions is not required to and can freely ignore any advice that they should or "ought to"). To the extent that it is, in practice, decidedly not the pro-life argument, given that such concerns would motivate policies that are decidedly different from those of most pro-life advocates, such as examination of effective birth control methods as a means to reduce the likelihood of abortions in the first place, it is offensive. But this is neither here nor there as far as the issue raised by a super bowl commercial. You'd have to be concerned enough to dig into the organisation that funded it and observed their politics over many years and I doubt this is something the average football fan is likely to do.
2) As I said, to the extent that is their belief it does not bother me. The reason is that the sort of pro-abortion-ist sentiments that "they" would like to paint people who support pro-choice policies as having and that maybe people like me actually hold (to the extent that if "going China" would be legal, which it wouldn't be, I would actually be roughly in favor of something like that as a stronger incentive to appropriate family planning.. I should probably refrain from re-reading Mill's staunch support for stable population controls when I have already such a high anti-social tendency toward the idea of "more people") are actually extremely rare and probably don't actually exist in our political spectrum in any meaningful way. Most people who support a woman's right to choose are actually rather unlikely to want to ever exercise it. Abortion is not an easy choice and many people, given actual choices, seem to avoid making it (this is in fact much of the political problem in this debate: that painting pro-choice people as pro-abortion ignores the fact that some of them are more like "pro-life" because they "choose life"). The ambiguity of abortion, and indeed in some cases, the certainty with which people feel that it is a moral wrong very much dictate against it being a common procedure for anything other than extreme situations. We already make it extremely difficult to receive one without some extraneous medical reason past the second trimester for example (such as the nominally healthy development of the fetus or the deterioration of the mother's health).

I think in point of fact that the idea that children and life in general is a precious commodity is a rather uncontroversial and unremarkable reason to run an advertisement (though I am not always that impressed that human life in particular is some special case development worthy of special moral treatments). Most Americans would agree with a statement like that, regardless of their political opinions on this point. What they are actually disagreeing with is in the specifics as to whether restricting the rights of women to choose in order to exercise these difficult choices themselves is a worse case morally than the actual execution of that choice in the form of an abortion. In other words, if we say that 47% of the population is "pro-choice" as opposed to 44% who are "pro-life", most of those people probably aren't in fact "pro-abortion". Indeed, many people who have abortions would very likely prefer to go on to have children at some other time or have even had children already. It is hardly "controversial" to argue those points that the commercial will attempt to make. It is in fact, so mundane and boring a point as to be almost irrelevant to the topic at hand. So we get Super Bowl ads by pro-life groups essentially diagnosing the problem as though pro-choice people want to kill off their children, which is entirely incorrect. The ethical problem isn't that pro-choice people somehow don't have an appropriate respect and reverence for human lives and cannot appreciate the power of human potential. The ethical problem is that they have enough respect and reverence for human lives to give people (women in particular) the choice of how or when to create them on their own terms and that this choice should not be made by default by the state or any agency other than the woman involved. Nor should it be the state's principle responsibility to prevent people from administering such procedures or to prevent people from paying for them, rather the only appropriate use of the state's powers might be to seek to reduce the demand for abortions rather than restricting the supply to more dangerous means.
3) All this means that the commercial itself, which probably cost a fortune, is ultimately an amusing waste of money and resources on the part of pro-life people which could probably be spent on better things. To the extent that they should be free to lobby and advocate their positions, I have no objections to them actually doing so (at least so long as they refrain from killing doctors who conduct abortions). I would have no objections to a more graphic and blatantly pro-life ad. CBS might, it's hard to tell. But I would not. As it stands, they will have to be pleased enough to air an ad that features this rather "lame" argument: "I could have killed Tim Tebow." To the extent that this matters to the debate, it is indeed a lame consideration. It does not matter because very few parents will have the opportunity to be parents to elite athletes or some other high achieving child, say the next Einstein or Hayek or something. For that matter, the inverted argument of "the next Hitler or Dahmer" is likewise pretty meaningless. Most abortions, if you think about in the abstract counter-factual sense, are of Jane or John Does. They are carpenters or nurses or plumbers or teachers. Nothing wrong with these things, but they are not star quarterbacks or infamous mass murderers. They do not "matter" in the greater scheme other than to their families and friends and the few people they reach along the way. This is not to say that they are irrelevant. They will in fact matter to someone very much, ideally. Which is pretty nice work if you can get it. But not enough to be the subject of an expensive TV commercial or the invocation of Godwin's Law in "important Internet debates". As such, it is most appropriate that the average person making the decision whether or not to carry out an abortion procedure should consider not whether they are carrying a future President or a future monster, but whether they will cherish and care for a child in such a way that it will flourish and endure in whatever endeavours we can allow it to pursue. At least, I think this is how most people, if they sat and thought out the debate would argue over it. And if the answer is an honest no, then we should prepare options as a state, options which may include abortions in addition to alternatives like adoption.

From my perspective, if we have reached a point where there are substantial numbers of women who have to have this torturous debate internally and who will arrive at a "no" answer, then we have probably made some serious social and public policy moral and categorical errors along the way. We have probably failed to disclose and maximize other options that might reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies (like birth control) or have failed to appropriately prioritize parenting such that it is easier to do for parents who have jobs and careers of their own and will not seem so inevitable to fail in that balance for some, or have failed to provide adequate medical care such that more pregnancies can be carried full term without malformations and complications and so on. These are things that the public can provide and which might reduce the likelihood of abortion demand. They can be provided much easier and may even result in a lower per capita total of abortion procedures than sitting around telling each other that "abortion is murder" and "that somewhere some woman is killing the next Heisman trophy winning quarterback." Because if the pre-Row era is any indication, abortions are not going away if we banish them legally. They are a difficult moral conundrum that is here to stay. Any sane public policy should only focus on making them reasonably accessible for people who need/want them (especially within the context of health considerations, though including broader contextual reasons and decisions made by the mother and family themselves) and also on reducing the likelihood that people will feel they need them in the first place. When more pro-life people are willing to acknowledge that the problem isn't a culture of murder and even "irresponsibility" and is instead a culture of individual rights and becomes willing to press for the availability of birth control methods more broadly instead of working to restrict access to birth control, I will take their argument much more seriously because it means they are focused on the problem as it actually is, or even as they claim it is, instead of as some culture war artifact that reduces the sexual freedoms of women generally and teenage and/or single women specifically. I hardly see how it is appropriate government policy to prevent pre-marital sexual activity. I agree it is appropriate policy to prevent murders, if I agreed that we were preventing murders by banning abortion. And I would certainly agree that it is good policy to prevent harms generally to society (which murder would certainly represent a harm specifically), and that reducing the likelihood of difficult and painful moral decisions which may cause harms and strains to the public, like abortion, can be done with very simple and still accommodating laws rather than bans or even coerced through social mores and argued position statements appealing to the passions and minds of people everywhere rather than given force of law in the first place.

Quite simply what I object to most strongly is the entire architecture surrounding pro-life politics and the intentions to use the force and compulsion of legal regimes to enforce sexual morals and traditions more so than the idea that people should, and usually would, cherish and love the children that they spawn. All of that is, to me, far more morally repugnant and divisive than a metaphysically grounded argument over when life begins which I think most people are somewhere on the other side of the argument from me anyway. I don't think in the abstract CBS is doing anything wrong by airing that very limited and mediocre argument in the form of a commercial because it's not very controversial. What it is doing is blatantly ignoring that the commercial includes some sort of subtextual heading that leads toward other far more controversial and sticky moral or metaphysical arguments over something like "which wrong is more wrong". I do believe it is fair to ask why they would do that because I find that most Americans don't like it when I can make their heads hurt from thinking about difficult subjects like that in the first place, and much less so when they are supposed to be watching a mindless football game and its associated and overpriced commercials.

dirty dictionary games

I must have had a boring childhood because I don't remember reading dictionaries for the purposes of discovering things about sexual positions. But apparently some concerned mother thinks kids can do just that. I guess, with some justification, that a parent can complain about anything that is put forward as material and subject matter in a classroom. That's one of the habits of a free speech society, that it gets exercised in sometimes frustrating, pointless, or mysterious ways, like parents complaining about sex education and evolution or Harry Potter books being in the library and so on. That is: that people will use their free speech in an attempt to deny it to others because of paternalistic grounds.

I am somewhat more alarmed when school districts respond by pulling the books off their shelves. It's bad enough that we have textbooks for elementary kids that basically have to pass muster in Texas. Meaning they cannot cover genocidal practices toward aboriginal peoples, end up talking too much about cowboys and Presidents, and glaze over Reconstruction as a collection of carpetbaggers and scalawags rather than examining the activities, founding, and subsequent suppression by military force of a terrorist organisation known as the Ku Klux Klan and the systematic repression of basic civil liberties for liberated slaves for another 80-90 years, and likewise include very little information on evolution or the philosophical underpinnings of places like Maoist China, the Soviet Union, or basically any place other than the glorious American Empire. I don't think we also need textbooks and reference materials that pass every objection of a parent or guardian. If a parent doesn't want their child to read certain things, that's up to the parent and child to follow through on that. Within certain limits it is unreasonable to expect the school district and board to have to go through and find every possible objectionable line and passage in their libraries and presentations. If something is known to be controversial and objectionable to a sizable subset of the population, it is sensible to make the public aware that it will be coming up or will be available to their children at a particular time, mostly to avoid annoying phone calls later. The attitude being that of "cover your ass". I don't think it is at all appropriate to sit around and extend resources and time into finding a book (in this case, the dictionary) that is somehow unobjectionable to everyone.

I admit this would be somewhat easier if we had more ability to exercise some school choices. Religious fundamentalists or any other people who get creeped out at the thought of their children being aware of oral sex can have schools that don't have this in the curriculum or in their dictionaries and the rest of us can overlook this as something our 4th and 5th graders are unlikely to discover in a gigantic reference book (rather than the university of Google, which amazingly doesn't go straight to oral sex even when you type in "oral". Apparently America is less perverted than I thought or else Google had some agitated parents who complained), and also as something we will probably be willing to allow our teenagers to know about. If still something most parents will be uncomfortable allowing their teenagers to dabble in. I don't object to people who want their children not to be fully educated and aware of the world, provided that they then don't make the same requirements in a (public) school that I might be sending my (mythological) children to.

As an update: it appears the school district has restored the offensive book to the library but now has had to go to the trouble of purchasing an alternative dictionary that somehow omits this distinctly troubling phrase, allows parents the ability to restrict their child's access to that offensive other book (though it is unclear how that access would be actually governed and restricted by school librarians other than simply giving out only the "good book" to everyone who asks for a dictionary, making keeping both of them pointless), and basically showed that being an enormous pain in the ass pays off such that future demonstrations against even more trivial phrases or subjects than even that of oral sex may achieve some modest successes. Well done anonymous mom type person and idiotic school board.

26 January 2010

further, second, take

It sounds like a bunch of pundits looked at Obama "campaign version" being opposed to spending freezes and hatchet politics and Obama "Presidential version" calling for a spending freeze. But it looks like the spending freeze he's actually calling for is essentially the same as what he called for back in the campaign: a targeted freeze that caps the spending and then moves it around from wasteful things (whatever those are) to better more productive things (whatever those are). It remains to be seen what he plans to move it around with since he never got into those details during the campaign and there are many possible ways to move money around that would be unproductive, both for the state of economy and politically for Obama and others. We may get a glimpse of this tomorrow night.

But I doubt it.

First Takes

So Obama put out his plans to help the middle class and to begin "attacking" the budget deficit. I am thus far rather unimpressed. Since these are putatively reforms aimed at ameliorating the concerns of independent-minded voters (like me), I submit that whoever thought up these ideas and released them in a packaged format for public consideration should be fired.

First off, the budget deficit attack consists solely of a freeze on discretionary spending. This is in fact a fairly large portion of the budget. There is, in my opinion, a considerable amount of waste already in there to be had and thereby cut from the out pile of the federal budget (though there will exist a considerable amount of political opposition to doing so). However, like the attacks on pork legislation this is largely a political stunt rather than a serious attempt to reign in spending. Sure we would benefit from less pork spending and thus less government waste and interference or distortion in the industrial policies of the nation. But there's several places we could do that with far less invasion (though perhaps, at times, more political resistance). For example, we could reform the income tax code to remove several key exemptions (like the home mortgage interest deduction), which we would have the effect, even if offset by some middle class rate reductions, of increasing government revenues, thus increasing the in pile of the budget mess (It would also have the effect of simplifying the tax code and decreasing the unproductive man hours spent on compliance with it by average taxpayers).

More importantly, most of the spending in our budgets consists of the following: the bloated military budget and associated national security industries (like intelligence or Homeland Security) which combine to exceed the spending of all other countries in the world, much less the spending of our erstwhile foes in public forums like Iran and North Korea, entitlement spending in the forms of social security, public pension programs, and public costs of health care, and the interest financing of the public debt. None of these three areas are at all threatened by a freeze in spending. Defense spending goes up by billions of dollars and we are told it is "decreasing". Health care reform was not, in my opinion, serious enough at addressing the cost curve or future deficits, but it is still no less essential that we begin looking at ways to do that regardless of whether a bill passes or not. Social benefits of retirement programs will at some point have to be indexed to a higher age of retirement or take in greater sources of revenue to remain fully funded (or else people will start to take seriously the idea of privatization for retirements, with the caveat that such savings be mandatory). At no point has the President or the country wrestled honestly with these as problems, and thus they continue to raise the importance of the last arena: the increasing public debt, the ceiling for which was just raised yet again.

Meanwhile, while pulling a political stunt is supposed to mollify these independents who are concerned about rising spending, it neglects that in the midst of a recession, it is probably unwise to place too much importance on reducing that spending. Where that spending is shown to be unproductive and wasteful, it should be cut. I do imagine there is plenty of federal and state monies that are dispensed in this way and could be slashed from their budgets. Almost certainly as much as the President assumes can be cut by freezing the increases (other than inflation adjustments like COLAs for public employees). I don't doubt that such cuts would be fruitful even in a recession simply by allowing the government to re-allocate that money to more productive ventures. But as I said, these are small potatoes. The bigger ones we spent a year on one of them and have made no real progress. Even if a bill passes I will not be impressed with the cost controls it contains, particularly if the unions get to keep their exclusion. And we are not even discussing the probability of reducing the military expenditures, or even whether those military spending contracts already allocated for the next decade are prudent and wise given the types of asymmetric and irregular forces we are dedicating our forces to oppose in open conflicts. Sure we can replace the F-15s and F-16s with F-35s and F-22s to insure that we'll have some high quality fighters to intercept some mythical attack by the Chinese or Russians and to deter them from even trying to do so. We cannot actually use them that efficiently against insurgents however (as a point of order, the F-22 and the F-35 hasn't even been deployed into combat in anything other than Michael Bay type movie). So what would be the point of having thousands of them? Prestige?

I give Obama some credit here. He did block more successfully the Congress' attempts to allocate discretionary spending than Bush ever did. Even when Congress was controlled by Democrats from 2007-2008. So he has a political track record at fighting these kinds of political waste and handouts that may be worth something if he chooses to pursue this as a centerpiece for the 2010 agenda. But I question the judgment of not even looking at the bigger fish in the room, much less the wisdom of looking at these small fish when we are still in a time of some economic confusion. One of the great criticisms of FDR arises from his sudden retreat away from fiscal and monetary expansion in 1937 during his second term and the immediate and painful effect that had on the economy, to the extent that the Depression lasted the entire decade instead of being aborted early in his second term. Reversals of policy in this way are not only politically suspect for the passage of expansionary policies like health care "reform" or the tabled climate/energy bill and the as yet unrevealed educational reforms (many of which I was mildly pleased with in their proposed forms, it remains to be seen how well they fared once Congress and the several states' governments get a hold of them), but they may even be economically dangerous and unsound.

Speaking of Presidential agendas that such a move may make unsound, there's a concurrent attempt to "help" the middle class.

1) Since I have no children, I will not comment at length about the prospect of increasing tax exemptions (but not tax credits) for people who have such expensive needs as those required in caring for their spawned relations. I don't think this is a terribly expensive reform since it amounts to a middle class tax cut of some sort. But I also don't see that this will substantially help most people either. A better approach would be to move the start of the school day back which would greatly reduce the costs of monitoring children while parents are at work at a more essential time: after school.

2) Helping old people/caregivers. I guess this is okay because it's pretty cheap. But didn't we start up Social Security and Medicare (and the expanded coverage for prescriptions) precisely so this wouldn't be a burden on individual middle class families? What does this say for the effectiveness of such approaches?

3) College loan limits on repayments. This to me is the biggest idiotic part of this proposal. Virtually any rational commentator on the expense of college will acknowledge the amount of distortions that easy money from the federal government has had on the rising costs of college. It is one thing to make it easier for students who would be greatly advantaged by attending college, and who cannot afford it, to go to college. I think that's a fine idea as it has the effect of increasing equality of opportunities. I don't think the way we've gone about it has made any sense or had the practical effect of reducing the cost, thereby increasing the affordability of colleges in a more general way. And, as a bigger problem, limiting college repayment amounts to 10% of income is not likely to actually diminish the underlying problem of the expense of college tuition increases (which have risen faster than even health care costs). College tuition costs are the root problem, and they will continue to increase in order to compensate for the decrease in loan repayment schedules. The simpler way to do it is to allow loan repayments to follow a schedule of repayment based on income for anybody who receives a loan. Rather than a 10% limitation, it should simply be a fixed amount based on actual income, say 5% of someone's income per year for 30 years (depending on the cost of the college attended and the degree/career field's likely income). This would give students the ability to pursue less fruitful careers without fear of being unable to pay their debts, such as public service in teaching, but also give colleges an incentive to provide better opportunities in profitable career fields, like professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers) and business or finance training. Somewhere in between there would be a market balance, and more people could complete college training without being indebted in a way that is unsustainable and we would not see college tuition costs continue to rise in an unrestrained manner (which is the actual problem that the middle class is dealing with).

4) Automatic enrollment in 401k/IRAs, with an opt-out. This is one of those "nudge" ideas from Cass Sunstein. I recognize this will help in the long-term a great deal by increasing the net savings rate. It does very little to deal with the immediate needs of people in the middle class, in part because the low savings rate was paradoxically necessary to sustain growth and it will take time to adjust to an economy with a larger rate of savings than we have had for a generation. I am skeptical that an automatic enrollment is necessarily great. Many company 401ks are terribly cost-inefficient, thereby decreasing the actual effectiveness of forced savings anyway, and others do not offer employer matches, making them roughly useless. The tax benefits of most 401k and IRAs are also very sketchy in the long run, given that these retirement devices are often taxed at normal income rates rather than the far lower capital appreciation tax rates that they are often invested into as a matter of form. It is also implied that the government may offer a match. To which I say: why didn't this idea fly when social security was on the table? I'm not sure how well this idea would help on net for the middle class, though in practice some nudge toward savings based economics would be very useful for the growth of the middle class (if not the particular individuals who presently comprise it).

5) Accordingly, none of those things does anything about job creation, which is, in effect, the actual problem facing middle class Americans. Many previous middle class jobs, such as automobile factory work, have diminished as firms have moved to more automated production or out of former bastions of industrial policy (Detroit) to other new bastions of such policies (Georgia), or the firms themselves have diminished through competition with more efficient foreign firms who still employ productive American workers. These jobs offered middle class pay or benefits but they do not accord themselves well to transition toward a modern service economy sector, such as being a nurse, teacher, entrepreneur, or any other form of modestly skilled labourer. This is a structural economics problem that Obama and others have acknowledged in passing (by saying things like "some jobs aren't coming back") but have not addressed in any political way. I did however finally see some progress on the job creation front this week as two opposing party Senators announced support for a plan to offer a new hire break on the payroll taxes. This isn't quite what I wanted. A simple payroll tax cut would be better than a flat new hire tax exclusion, which may perversely incentivize firms to fire people who are marginally productive and not end up doing much about actual unemployment, or at best, will simply amount to reducing wage stickiness as new hires are brought on at cheaper, more profitable wages. But at least they're talking about fiddling with the payroll taxes to decrease the cost of a marginal job to employers. Progress I guess.

CU in hell case

I'm a little confused by the punditocracy's reaction to the Supreme Court decision last week, for a couple strange reasons.
1) Republican types are WAYYYY too happy about this decision.
2) Democrat types are apparently unaware that the majority, a clear majority, of registered Democrats liked this decision too.
3) Independents are pissed, or at best lukewarm.

I submit that all three groups are mostly wrong, though Democratic voters are probably in the best scenario of being slightly right.

Republicans seem to be happy because, other than McCain, none of them were all that happy about campaign finance laws in the first place. This leads to an assumption among liberal pundits that such laws are helpful for them (as to defeat Republicans in elections). Which they are, in fact, not, because it assumes that "corporations" are a monolithic political interest in the same way that say, unions tend to be. Corporations however include a vast underbelly of liberal or strict Constitutional views about things like free speech, in addition to the juggernauts who seem to run everything who, we are told, care only about profit reporting for their shareholders (without apparently bothering to investigate who those shareholders are, nor to determine whether this is, taken by itself, somehow a horrible perspective for a company to base its decision making). But the point is that "being seen as on the side of corporations" is not exactly "big business" politically. Winning elections and setting policies once in office is. So when Republicans nominate people that seem likely to win corporations jump on the bandwagon like anybody else does. They do not actually receive, for the most part, some sort of special GOP bonus handouts from corporations. The reason is: Democrats receive the same handouts and more importantly, the same treatment post-election through lobbying and influence at the points of legislation. Corporations, in their bold pursuit of profits, have figured out that the way to protect those profits isn't to change who gets elected against the will of the people, it's instead to work with the people who get elected to keep them there and serving at the whim of the people. This is why the Democratic punditry has me sort of confused. Among other reasons, the uncapped law also uncapped unions, who tend to be far more partisan or monolithic than corporations (in part because unlike many businesses other than monopolistic ones, unions are more dependent on government policy being specifically favorable, for reasons that I'm not sure were wise choices for unions to make). The one downside risk is that the amount of open money in play may allow some of the most contentious races to be more strongly anti-incumbent than at present.

Which is precisely why the ambivalence of independents is so strange. The one losing party in this case wasn't Democrats or Republicans per se. It was the party system that was dependent on direct corporate/union money for the purposes of political speech rather than the ability of that money to rally support for non-partisan purposes (and candidacies). The Perot campaign back in 1992/1996 was a demonstration of how this works. It seems to me in large part a reason why we ended up with tougher campaign finance laws because it scared the shit out of the major political parties to have some dwarf with funny ears and a ton of oil money siphoning off votes and political favors without major institutional support. Sure he was easy to mock on Saturday Night Live with his incessant use of charts and graphs, but not every semi-independent billionaire with a corporate arsenal behind them is so uncharismatic (see: Bloomberg, Michael). I think we as an observant public still have every reason to remain suspicious of corporate largess in politics. But if it produces some quality independent campaigns, or even quasi-independent campaigns (such as the amount of money raised by Congressman Paul's campaign in 2008), we might see some institutional shifts in the stances of the major parties as they continue to lose some importance in the election cycles (if not the actual political battlefields of statehouses and the Capitol building). Progress is sometimes slower than we wish. But when it comes, I don't see why people should be ambivalent about it because they didn't foresee it coming or even didn't take the precise form they wanted.

25 January 2010

more thoughts on some old ideas

"a longstanding constitutional axiom that the government may not require the surrender of constitutional rights in exchange for state-furnished benefits—say, barring criticism of Congress by residents of public housing."

- Hmm. I suppose that a little old document like the Constitution wouldn't get in the way of people who want to get rid of welfare by making it harder on people who need it (by requiring drug testing). Given my aversion to the already expansive definition of "probable cause", I have even less consideration for any idea like this. If you actually wanted to kill the social welfare instruments, you'll have to try something else though. Basically, if one is somewhere on the political "right" and wants to protect the rights of corporations to supply political speech (which is really something of a "liberal" idea), then you also have to respect where the boundaries in the Constitution are when you have your own "good" ideas for laws. So I don't think you will succeed in killing it without doing something drastic like a negative income tax. Welfare reforms a few years back is probably the best you will get. Wyden-Bennett was probably the best way to kill Medicare/aid for the same approach. You will have to leave in place the ability of people to live and receive some state or public subsidy to provide a level of safety and fairness to the overall system but also distribute more the responsibility of decision making to the individual so that people who "fail" cost mostly themselves something and people who "have been failed" by other circumstances and can still make something of themselves cost us nothing. By contrast, an idea like a drug-tested welfare state ensures more police state powers (which are supposed to be prevented by the Constitution and the courts), does not prevent welfare abuse, and acts as a further impediment/hassle cost factor to people signing up and receiving benefits that they might actually need (the number of people who don't sign up for public assistance benefits of some sort and who are eligible is rather high, at least comparable to the number of people who abuse the system). That does not impart "responsibility" except as a particle of moral majoritarianism that implies that it is the use of drugs/alcohol that is at fault for the failures of individuals. Addiction may be an issue worth investing more public attentions (though not by mandatory drug testing of a broad cross section of the population), still I'd like to see where we attend to the "failures" of wealthy individuals who use such substances with equal measures of public scrutiny before ascribing the failure of someone on public assistance to their habit of having a beer and some smokes after work or buying some marijuana once or twice a month.

22 January 2010

Citizens United case

I have a mixed reaction to this. On the one hand, I share a strong populist desire to see the influence and amount of control of "special interests" diluted in government. On the other, I have no desire to do so by limiting speech and the production of that speech, even by "evil" corporations and have a clearer idea than most how that speech is exercised. I'd like to think this gives me a different perspective on how the laws should be structured than the average populist.

1) A corporation should not be treated as a person legally. I have trouble with this statement. It might be sensible to disregard certain rights that are apportioned to people and not apply them to organisations of people. But there are several other competing special interests that are, like corporations, merely semi-permanent associations of people with some common interest in something and legal status to indicate this. Do we also apply the same merit of logic to exclude those associations from the political process (that would be things like: churches, various special interest associations, unions, media corporations and institutions of the press)? Why not? We are then told that the court overturned legal precedents. I find this uncompelling for much the same reason. The court has a history of overturning decades of legal precedents for compelling social and constitutional reasons. Plessy v Ferguson was the law of the land for almost 60 years. Corporations, as a matter of law, are "people", as a matter of legal precedent for decades also. This precedent was not overturned because corporations, and in fact people and any and all private or public institutions they form, are not listed as the source of our protections of free speech. It simply states that free speech is to be protected and no laws can be made to overturn it without referring to any organs that promote speech of any kind. Despite the somewhat idealistic tones of the Federalists with a vision of a party-less society capable of debating the weighty ethical and political matters of the day, it seems clear that they understood (in theory if not always in practice) that opposing views were not to be squashed by government fiat, whether they were held as popular or not. The government could oppose such views, by publishing studies with supporting documentation or by its publicly elected officials making speeches to clarify their views personally for the consideration of their constituents. But this is distinct from forbidding speech from any particular source, for any particular reason. We do have some unprotected classes of speech (Fire! or inciting imminent riotous and violent behavior). These however are extremely rare legal precedents and flat bans on corporate (and union and to a lesser extent privately provided) advertisements for or against candidates are not at all approaching such restrictions.

2) Corporations have too much influence over the legislative process. This may be true but there are some issues with this statement. First, corporations are competing against each other and against other special interests, say energy companies versus the Sierra Club (both are corporations) or GM versus the UAW (a labour union). Second, corporations may be exercising undue influence in legislation but they are doing it at the point of legislation, through lobbying dollars. Not through determining who gets elected (most often an incumbent, but "the mob is fickle, brother"). Money in elections (and their associated and interminable advertisements) tends to follow the candidate who is deemed the most likely to get elected.

The assumption of progressives whose cause is invested in this case seems to be that corporate money follows only Republicans, thus favoring them for elections. These progressives should check the facts of electoral war chests. Corporate sponsoring money and advertising follows winning candidates, regardless of party. There are some special interests, gun rights groups for example or abortion activists on both sides, who are unlikely to give money to a particular side. But corporate businesses, of the sort that we are encouraged to associate with the idea of a corporate patron unduly influencing the political process, are likely, with the possible exception of oil money, to give to whoever appears more likely to win (and to hedge by giving some money to the other side as well). This is, to some extent, one of the few very helpful things that Michael Moore does in pointing it out in his films the ties between a corporation and its purchased public servants. It would help a bit more if he likewise noticed when a union or a particular trade association makes the same determinations. Nevertheless, he is dogged in noting that such money does not wait for Republicans to win elections. The dirt is everywhere. And in point of fact, it is already everywhere even with this supposedly necessary restriction existing. If it was so essential to silence unions and corporate speech, why are they still perceived, correctly, as exerting enormous power over the political class and processes of federal (and in some cases state and local) law? Perhaps some investigation into that method would be warranted before decrying judicial activism in favor of the Constitutional rights of free speech.

3) Free speech should not be infringed. I'm pretty sure that this is in the Constitution somewhere. Do people lose their ability to speak because they are part of an association of others who share their interests? The argument against this seems to be based on an assumption that "money is not speech". Money may not be. But the money is a tool used to purchase advertising or to support particular views and candidates. Which is speech. The argument that "money is not speech" ignores the purposes and choices of how that money is being used by the people and bodies of people involved and effectively declares that private citizens have no right to speech either by silencing their ability to gather funding to support their own views. I find it far more likely that bans on corporate advertising surrounding elections, candidates, and issues, is a means to entrench corporate power and influence in other ways (such as lobbying or legally complex PACs) rather than a means to provide those corporations and the individual interests they represent with clear and unobstructed ways of defining their support. In other words, I'd rather the shit be right out in the open than somewhere I can't find it.

Now it is true that, say, the energy lobby tends to be more influential than the Sierra Club and Greenpeace at getting its agenda through Congress. The passion involved behind a particular special interest is not always matched by having substantial resources. But there again, this has very little to do with the process of electoral speech (who should you vote for!). It is the lobbying that requires more transparency and attention, not the process of elections. We hear the word "corporation" and immediately apply a rubric that says "evil gigantic business owners". This is not, by and large, the significance of who corporations are, many are non-profit charities for example. And, because of the legal codes in this country governing business, there are many ways that a business may be run without specific corporate logos and whose speech is more direct and unrestrained. Are we to favor the speech of those businesses over those of publicly traded corporations? I sympathize with the desire to see GM or Exxon or General Electric or Aetna or Kraft hold less sway because of their massive resources in lobbying and in supporting legislators who support their peculiar agendas, but not at the expense of limiting the ability of the UAW, the Sierra Club, religious bodies, and so on from competing against those views also (as would be only fair). Restricting speech at the time of elections (the time period when Americans are most aware of the political process, I use the term "aware" very loosely) has, in effect, increased the importance of speech at the time of legislation (the time period when most Americans are unlikely to be paying even a modest amount of attention to the political process), and thus served to increase the power and influence of already powerful bodies. I, therefore, see no reason to maintain such a policy. In fact, I would prefer it if more speech were focused in the opposite direction, to support candidates already amenable to particular views out of some philosophical principle of governance rather than to shape those views once in office.

More reactions:
Greenwald
McArdle
Somin

One other addendum point. It is not necessary for the Supreme Court or anyone else to endorse the views of Citizens United itself in order to find them Constitutionally protected. It is not simply favorable groups whose voices must be protected and heard, but any group with a perspective and what they feel as important information should have the right to air and seek to address their concerns. Restricting who shall have the right to express opinions, or even when they may voice those opinions and in what manner, is not something we should want to appoint as a power to the government in the first place. As with the freedom of religion, what is to say that a future administration will look upon the precedent of silencing a disfavored group to silence its new and different disfavored opponents (perhaps even a majority of the people)?

back to torture

"It is essential that justice be done and it is equally vital that justice not be confused with revenge, for the two are wholly different"

I think by now I can appreciate that the desire for revenge is very strong and runs deep in the psyche of human beings. We desire some form of reciprocity in our relations with others and when those others attack us, harm us, or harm others who we care for deeply, there is a great deal of pain. We then often may wish to inflict that pain back. I do recognize that something like September 11th is a massive wound on the national psyche. I do recognize that it makes people justifiably angry and afraid when thousands of their friends, their citizens, and their loved ones are murdered. I had some unusual reactions myself that day. I think this was, in effect, one of the first times I actually noticed that I was a truly little different from most people in my manner of thinking. Sometimes this was true in a negative way and its indeed possible that my reactions on that day were negative, relative to being afraid or angry instead (neither of which is an emotion I recall experiencing, maybe confusion while I tried to work my head around the jumbles and bits and pieces, but that's about it). But I also galvanized myself toward others in the same way that other people around the country did for a few weeks. It was that feeling, the sort of assumed charity and decency, that was impressive and stuck with me from those days.

So I guess it should not surprise me that my reaction was not one of revenge either. I regard the need to satisfy justice as a quest within the rule of law and it offends me to deviate from that path in part because those rules and the ideals they often represent are very carefully and painfully won over centuries of human history. Tossing them aside to get at our enemies is emotionally satisfying perhaps for those who thirsted for blood, but it's not leaving us very many outs. If there's one thing I like morally speaking, it's having outs. Revenge does not have outs. It's a binary quest to inflict pain and suffering upon someone who did it to you (or not to). Justice leaves us with many possibilities. There are therefore many ways to satisfy it. Including attacking hostile state and non-state actors with military force in order to compel their acquiescence to justice, should that be deemed an effective strategy (it is rarely very effective in practice).

I am of the opinion that the things we do to inflict pain should be left to only when it is absolutely necessary (such as to defend ourselves from death or serious injury). Revenge, as satisfying as it may feel in its moment where we might tremble in its glorious effect, is hardly necessary because it is fleeting. It establishes nothing and achieves, ultimately, only hollow accomplishments. Killing terrorists, in accordance with our state's laws through the use of a military force on the field of battle or through the application of criminal justice to have them executed, may be productive or counterproductive in the event of preventing future attacks. That is a matter worthy of some debate. Killing and injuring terrorist suspects, captured and detained well away from the field of battle and rendered incapable of harming Americans or anyone else, even assuming that they held such desires, is hardly a productive enterprise. It is solely a practice of revenge seeking because it allows to express those darker impulses violently and explosively against a helpless and defeated foe.
Like here

Guess who wins that battle? It's not the person who resorts to torture.

more reasonable posting on the sentiments involved

There's another parable I'd like to share here.

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

- Adam Smith.

Haiti continues: Fuck you edition

So now there's an absurd rationalization that Haiti did not give us money to help with Katrina or 9-11 so we shouldn't have to help them. I'm going to take a rather unorthodox step (for me) of quoting the Bible. This should give people a pretty good idea how pissed off this makes me. The rage is sufficient to make it impossible to concentrate reliably without deflecting it through some scriptural analogy that people might have heard of rather than one of my own. It's making me angrier just thinking about it being even made and that I have to respond to such inhumane and insufferable attitudes.

"And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."

Haiti, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in fact contributed around $36,000 in total aid money to the American relief effort (among the hundreds of nations who did so, many with vast resources contributed far "less" in terms of GDP ratios, and many more pledges of aid were turned aside, for various reasons. For example Cuba's offer of medical assistance was turned away, for what must be seen as obvious reasons given our icy relationship). Given the billions of aid pouring in now to help the suffering of its people now (and the billions more given over the last two hundred years to aid with hurricane relief and crushing poverty), that is a drop in the bucket yes. But to expect any more would be as one who expects an ant to help with carrying his groceries inside.

What resources would we have expected Haiti's government and people to possess that we lacked for need of in the wake of that tragedy and others? We have the largest military and the largest economy in the world. This gives us the luxury to help others in their time of need through private donations and public aid given through the state department or through the assistance of military and corporate equipment and, if the lengthy number of tokens of aid that flowed in in the wake of Katrina are any good indicator, this is in fact something that Americans are well respected for around the world because many nations sought to return the favor in our own hour of need. Haiti meanwhile is one of the poorest countries in the world (and the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, even the commies in Havana are way better off) with a dysfunctional nation-state even under the best of circumstances. Despite this, it still took the time to express a token of esteem and gratitude with money that it could most certainly use for its own people (even if it is unclear that it would have done so). And we have the conceit to want to tell them to fuck off now because "they didn't help us?"

The logic of only helping nations who helped us, incidentally, would probably include some places I very seriously doubt we would "want" to help. Like Chavez ruled Venezuela, which contributed discounted oil and natural gas reserves to our refugees through its state-owned oil company.

Anyway, as bad as the destruction on the Gulf Coast was, the amount of human toll it took was no where near what we're seeing here (and a few years ago in Indonesia). Yes some thousands of people died and their homes were displaced. Property can be rebuilt or people can just move on and live somewhere else to escape the dangers they experienced in the wake of a natural disaster of tremendous scale. Human beings cannot do such a basic thing as "move on" if they are dead or must grieve for unaccounted-for loved ones. If there are hundreds of thousands dead, imagine a metropolis sized American city vanishing from the map nearby with nearly all its inhabitants killed or seriously injured or knowing someone who was, and then translate that to a place that did not have nearby adequate medical facilities in the first place prior to the calamity nor well-established police and military forces to keep order and distribute supplies to survivors. That is not Katrina, as bad as that was and as destructive to New Orleans and elsewhere as it was. It is an unprecedented disaster in American history. We've never seen anything like it in modern history anywhere in the globe. The casualties and vast scale of devastation after the tsunami in 2004 are similar yes. But Indonesia and India and Thailand had institutional structures still in place, their governments did not implode, their people were, for the most part, not already existing in desperate poverty, and the international community responded freely to assist in any ways that it might. To suggest that the most powerful agent in that community should not react at all and more over, should not solely out of some petty self-regard for its own disasters in the semi-recent past for which it was largely capable of handling on its own, if in a historically bumbling way, is so beyond any reckoning of how any self-respecting human being should regard the suffering of others as to be despicable and even deserving of our loathing. There are arguments as to why the nation-state powers of the American union should not be deployed to Haiti. I do not personally agree with them or, at least, they're not applicable to the current legal interpretations of the powers and capacities of our government (for example appeals to Constitutional mandates regarding foreign aid), but they are infinitely less petty and far more legitimate than this.

It is true that a magnitude 7 earthquake is actually very modest (as far as serious earthquakes go). Well-run nation states do not typically lose entire cities and hundreds of thousands of lives when they occur, nor do their existing political and social institutions crumble and cease to function. This is admittedly a problem with the Haitian situation that requires some attention, and it is an attention that we will have tremendous difficulty resolving. It resembles very much the problems we have experienced in Afghanistan and Somalia before that. A region with minimal effective governance in its entire history is not going to turn into a "model UN democracy" or perhaps even a benevolent tyranny overnight. I've already put forward the best idea I can for helping with that in the short-to-medium term: move the Haitians who want to move to someplace else, most likely somewhere in America since the global demand to come to America is still very strong and undoubtedly the regional demand of Haitians is even higher still than some random family in sub-Saharan Africa would feel compelled to express. Individuals and immigrants are far more likely to adapt to a system of governance that has proven modestly effective over time than are other nation-states and foreign interventions/aid likely to spontaneously provide such governance to them in their current homes (multiplied in difficulty further still by the fact that most people will not even have current homes for some time).

And other than that, still seems pretty much like giving what you can, if you want to, while allowing the US government (and others) to proceed to help as well in the immediate term is the only alternative. Any argument that they did not help us so we should not bother with helping them is absurd and deserves to be openly mocked as immaterial and asinine. For a country that is supposedly founded on something like Christian morals (whatever those are and according to Christians anyway), we often look a lot more like a country that is founded on something like the morals of a 5 year old petulant child to me.