31 October 2011

What I vote for, and why this means I'm not voting for anybody

What it comes down to for me to support a candidate for national office.
1) Strong civil liberties defender. This includes things like opposing anti-terrorism methods, TSA invasive powers, and essentially the very existence of the PATRIOT act, Homeland Security, and the DEA. Obama has been more of the same here. You can guess that this makes me very angry.

Concurrently, the sort of "lets get rid of lobbyists!" talk I hear, sometimes from the sort of people protesting for civil liberties, does not impress me. It seems inevitable that people of strong convictions on the issues will demand a voice for reform. I don't see how limiting that voice, by constraining the ability to lobby public officials directly for such reforms or to agitate themselves for such ideas, is a very good idea in and of itself. To my mind what this would accomplish is legitimize the modest state-control over media we already have by limiting what arguments are heard to what arguments media companies approve of airing publicly and providing coverage to (drug policy is a notable example here to observe how it is covered by media). Additionally, most of this focuses on things like public funding for elections and their candidates, but ignores the much more significant influence trading which occurs through regulatory capture behaviors, conducted by mostly unelected officials, or the direct influence trading that occurs when industries effectively write the laws themselves and have them introduced by favorable political figures (the health care law, along with Dodd-Frank, among others are prime examples here).

So what does concern me is non-transparent free speech. I have no problem if individuals take to airing their perspectives, even under pseudonyms, for the purpose of stirring debate and discourse over complex issues. I have a problem where those individuals (and corporations of all stripes), take to airing their perspectives by direct political influence (ie, monetary support), but then wish that influence to be private and undisclosed. My own perspective is that political influence through lobbying (for which providing election campaign funds and advertising in support of candidates is merely the most visible format) should be disclosed, fully and openly. The focus on elections is ultimately foolish. The real problem is getting people to pay attention to what politicians and bureaucrats, and the influencing agents involved, are doing while nobody is paying attention. Namely, in between elections when laws are actually being written and new rules and regulations handed down and enforced. If people couldn't be troubled to notice the push for health care reform over the last 40 years and thought that a very minor change to the current system was happening too fast or all of the sudden, then I have a pretty defensible notion that most voters are not actively paying attention to the political process as it actually happens, most of the time. Occasionally, sure. Mostly, no.

2) Realistic attitude toward foreign policy. Focus on what we can and cannot do, and also what are the essential interests that we must fight for, and what interests we can afford to apply other methods on (diplomacy, trade, etc). Even supposed doves like Obama (supposed from the GOP perspective) are overly hawkish in my view. Hawkishness has a place. Wars are sometimes necessary at the state level. But looking for and creating fights where you can achieve your goals in other ways, not so much a good use of the state and its war powers. As examples. Iran, the whole assassination of Saudi ambassadors plot is sounding a lot to me like yet another FBI setup based on what our government itself has released, and not something hatched and approved in Tehran and thus creating a problem for us internationally. Invading Iraq essentially created more opportunities for Iran to be a trouble maker as well, something we ought to have considered when we decided to invade and occupy Iraq in the first place. Pakistan. While I'm no fan of Pakistan and especially its apparent intelligence operations in the South Asia region, the political and media perspectives being taken there are unproductive. It's Pakistan we actually want to be stable, because of the nukes. Afghanistan is and always was a hopeless quest. Talking down to Pakistan because they're fucking with our mission in Afghanistan is more an indication that our mission in Afghanistan was based on a horribly flawed strategy to begin with (or at least, since we went in with the post-Iraq mission statement that this was about spreading democracy rather than hunting down and fighting/killing international criminals) than leading to any necessary conclusion that Pakistan is to be our new avowed enemy.

3) Admit a willingness to cut useless bureaucracy (multiple lines of regulation for instance on the same products or services or excessive agencies/contractors conducting the same mission, most prevalent in the security state apparatus), cut spending significantly (and not token cuts like "foreign aid" or "planned parenthood", like GOP types spout off about, but real cuts like entire federal agencies being abolished or slashed down to the bone, getting rid of a lot of subsidies, etc), reform taxes and entitlements (including abolishing the home mortgage deductions and ending entitlements as anything other than a social safety net, social welfare in effect). People who are not willing to talk about this openly and instead offer vague pronouncements and spend too much time talking about weird tax reforms and tax cuts (read: most of the Republican field and Congress) when the government's problem is spending and not so much taxation, don't get my support.

Pretty much everything else I care about as a voter is, usually, a local or state matter (licensing laws, zoning restrictions, environmental protections, etc).

Totally shocking

The White House website has up a set of user generated petitions.

Unsurprisingly, when it came time for the WH to respond to the most popular ones (among which marijuana legislation is high on the list. Pun intended?), they've pretty much offered the same useless platitudes.

Their entire anti-marijuana response for instance contained among its most significant arguments if you changed the word "marijuana" to "tobacco" or "alcohol", you would have the same argument. This is effectively among the most significant reasons people wish to reform the current laws, for the arbitrary, unscientific, "basis" for banning one and not the other (there are political philosophical reasons to oppose the accumulated power of the state to punish consensual adult behavior involving drug transactions, but this is not as powerful a message to the average voter/person as "it's not any more or less dangerous than things we allow people to buy/sell/consume").

Consequently, as soon as that silly response went up, there are half a dozen re-petitions for legalisation, legalisation debate, and also, most amusingly and most tellingly, petitions for governing tobacco and alcohol under the same logic as marijuana. I'm a little confused by the response also in an environment where over 50% are now supporting legalisation of marijuana. Not just medical research and uses, but out and out decriminalisation, regulation, and taxation. One would think that if the general public is roughly for something, the government should be a little less hostile to their position than the stance that was outlined.

As a further problem with the response, the federal government's official actions relating to both medical marijuana and reducing arrest and incarceration as appropriate responses in favor of treatment and prevention, essentially the preferred compromise position of regulating, are contradictory to its claims. The government, even under Obama, has stepped up raids on medical marijuana in states that have legalised it for this expressed purpose, and has continued to apply arrest and detention methods on end users. A position which is unsustainable (it puts too many people in jail for us to properly attend to, the vast majority of which are non-violent offenders), often baldly racist (see arrest statistics in Chicago for example), and is quite possibly the most expensive method of deterrence. The "9 billion spent on drug enforcement" is also a lie. Drug enforcement doesn't just occur in the US. The DEA has agents all around the world. Even if that amount is less than the amount dispensed on treatment/prevention (which "prevention" spending has its own problems in that the programmes, like DARE, are simply more enforcement spending rather than effectively designed prevention), and even at a 9 billion amount, that amount of spending is absurdly high relative to what, if any, benefits are accruing from it.

As a second petition they've so far responded to: Removing "under god" from the pledge. While acknowledging the place of religion in American society seems useful, the pledge hasn't always been the way to do that. Leaving in god we trust on the money is one thing. Using money doesn't require anyone to utter any oaths or declare a lack of faith in public. You really don't even have to look at it other than to make sure you are giving the cashier the proper amount. Personally, I'd much rather we take Jackson off the $20 anyway than get rid of this. Bad economic stewardship (Jackson's populist economic policies, particularly in the monetary realm, led directly to a severe Depression in the late 1830s) and being an asshole should be sensible enough reasons not to put someone on our money. I'd also back any proposal to get FDR off the money. The 1937 "Second" Depression is on him, not Hoover, and it's no picnic. Stick to people who actually had decent and effective economic policies (Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Eisenhower, JFK, Teddy Roosevelt...)

Not saying the pledge is a perfectly legitimate form of protest. But there are plenty of stubborn public officials in schools who won't take no for an answer and will attempt to penalise for this apparent lack of patriotic fervor. More importantly there are plenty of other students who will notice differences and distinctions and make fun of them. I even had people I considered friends in my own time point out my lack of pledge reciting with a distinct negative connotation. To say nothing of the hostility generated by less amiable fare within schools. This one to me seems a little more important to strike from the public. If students wish to pray, to organise among themselves religious demonstrations or associations, so be it, go to it says I. But compelling students, against their will, to demonstrate religious affiliations in public should not be considered appropriate. I'm not so sure why we have a pledge to recite in the first place either. But the fact that it misuses a Lincoln quote in order to explicitly define the state as religiously ordained, at least according to most pledge defenders, seems a little more insane based on our Constitution and first amendment ideals than a nation-state having its children utter nationalistic pledges and stare at a piece of fabric.

Note: I did not mind the IBR system for repaying college loans in that reply (though I didn't sign any of those petitions in the first place). Friedman for example proposed a similar system 50 years ago for paying for higher education. I suspect such a system however is not very popular with the sort of people who were petitioning relating to college loans. Also, I would disagree with the notion that more of our jobs require a college degree. Or at least the notion that more of our jobs should require a college degree. The reason they do is overextended use of state licensing requirements in several major sectors of the economy. The advantage of college degrees should be flexiblity applied toward many different sectors of potential employment, and/or training for very specific professional fields. They are not job-training however in the manner required for many forms of employment. A stronger social and public reliance on vocational training or apprenticeships would be perfectly fine for many jobs, even many advanced tech jobs. We exclude many jobs and opportunities by requiring college degrees for them.

Reprinting the silliest part of the anti-marijuana argument here:

"According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world's largest source of drug abuse research - marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Studies also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years, raising serious concerns about what this means for public health – especially among young people who use the drug because research shows their brains continue to develop well into their 20's. Simply put, it is not a benign drug."

This sort of thing is more or less why I'm not voting for the guy, among many other civil liberties bugaboos. If you're supposed to be the adult in the room, you don't get to lie to the kids or use your adult status to advance arbitrary rules. Your rules still have to make more sense than "Because I said so". 

28 October 2011

Out for blood?

The intersection of culture and philosophy is occasionally interesting.

Like when it points out some difficult social questions.

"I can't prove to you that God exists; but science can't prove that God doesn't exist either." - This argument is logically true. But this is true largely because the religious mindset has deliberately created and defended a metaphysical construct that exists outside of natural and logical examination. Thus the problem with the argument is that it demands that the atheist provide evidence to disprove the notion of a deity in order to satisfy the believer's demands that he or she believe in "something" rather than not. This is an impossibility, proving a negative tends to be that way. The same problem arises when authorities are convinced someone is guilty of a crime/is a terrorist and raises the methods of proving this assertion until the pain or deprivation is too extreme to bear and the truth of guilt or innocence becomes malleable even to the accused. They cannot prove to their interrogator that they didn't do anything, only prove that they did.

What would make more sense to the skeptical atheist is that the believer demonstrate that their non-natural worldview actually intersects somewhere in the natural world and thus provides evidence that can be tested or observed. Since they cannot (by definition), it makes no sense that they should demand the (skeptic) atheist share their worldview. But of course they do.

""You are a Catholic, right?"
"No, I'm not."
"Muslim, then?"
"Sorry, I don't believe in ... anything."
To the faithful, not believing simply doesn't make sense. They are much more forgiving of someone of a different faith than of someone with no faith at all. Atheists are at the bottom of the social chain."

Look. Even those (supposedly) pesky Muslims and Mormons are more popular than us. In America, open discrimination against atheists is among the last socially acceptable prejudices (it's the only one that a majority of people will admit to not supporting an atheist for President for instance). The one trick that an atheist has, unlike other more visible prejudices, is that, until someone asks, it's generally pretty hard to tell what makes us different from the rest. It's easy enough to go along with much "common sense" morality (don't murder the innocent, don't lie or steal unnecessarily, don't rape, don't form rampaging mobs to destroy property, etc). So that raises no questions. It's easy enough not to go to the same churches, synagogues, mosques, etc, as your neighbours in a country that broadly accepts religious freedom (and where there are thus plenty of religious options available). That doesn't raise any questions either. And we do have something of a conditional more that says "don't talk about religion", at least openly and proudly, with strangers. This too keeps down the heat. Naturally there are some who disobey this informal arrangement (usually the most eccentric atheists and the much larger body of evangelical Christians), so it comes up sooner or later. And that's where the confusion, and bile, comes out.

"you'd expect that in an age of science people would stop believing in the supernatural; but that's clearly not happening." - Science is too rarely explained and examined in a way that makes sense of what it can (and cannot) do. So we're left with lots of people who claim a belief in deities, and also in ghosts, angels, zombies, vampires, wizards, and so on. As a culture we consume these plots in a series of (mostly) horribly written movies and books every year. Peaking around this time of year in fact. Sadly it's actually very easy to scientifically explain why the human brain believes it saw a ghost, why it believes "mystical" experiences to be evidence of deities or angels/demons, why there are long-standing cultural histories that give us fear of the "undead", and why we would believe in "magic". There's all manner of dedicated research in evolutionary psychology, sociology, recorded human history, neurology, and so on to point to that thoroughly debunks this collective nonsense. The trouble is that most people are completely disinterested in hearing it. They are convinced by their experiences and observations, their senses and intuitions. Not by their reflections, their abstract and critical thoughts. They are the sort who takes every coincidence to be meaningful. Because to them it has to be something more than just random chance; the collision of otherwise meaningless events intersecting in their lives.

For the atheist, the difference is this. We know we are (all) making up meaning for the events of our days and lives, and we embrace this fantastic quest for meaning as an element of our humanity, while rejecting fantasy itself as something to embrace. At least as anything other than idle diversion. I certainly find Batman and LOTR enjoyable stories, for example. But I can put down the story when the movie is over or the book complete. The bulk of humanity is busy embracing this fantasy world in a rush to avoid the much more difficult question of finding meaning for themselves. So in Dexter, this year the killers are of a religious apocalyptic mindset. And this is a very, very typical delusion for people to engage in; that they live in special and meaningful times because the end of human history is upon us, or that it will be without some heroic interventions on their part.

I'd be upset too if the writers take that delusion and confuse it with Dexter's "code", his own delusion, in order to give him some "belief" that looks more tolerable to the average person. Religion and faith format. In my ideal world, I conceive of a place where such issues as what a person's faith is (or is not) matter very little, if at all. I see very little meaningful information to be conveyed by asking what religion someone practices, for a variety of reasons, so I don't see that this is a useful question to ask someone. In practice, we are not there yet. This partly because we don't ask very good questions about where the intersection already occurs between individual faith (or lack thereof) and the "outside" social worlds we live in and interact with, and also where and whether it should occur.

Maybe we can start. Seems like the writers of Dexter are.

26 October 2011

Good luck with that, bits and pieces edition.

1) As with the death of Saddam, I'm not greatly troubled that Qaddafi has been killed. But. As with his fall from power and the fall of Saddam, I'm not greatly encouraged that the situation has now been improved. Fighting is the easy part. Rebuilding a country with minimal stable social institutions necessary to guarantee basic human rights and a democratic society, good luck with that. I'd love to be proven wrong that such things could be done relatively cheaply and easily, as promised. But I have a couple hundred years to point out that it hasn't been cheap and easy even with countries that already have minimally stable social institutions that don't need to be built from scratch (Germany and Japan post WW2 for instance). Also. Just because it's a liberal-progressive Democratic President instead of a vile fascistic Republican in office (or vice versa in a few years when this happens again with some other tottering dictator in a mostly irrelevant nation-state, say Syria or Morocco, with the glorious clone of Reagan 2000 as President), does not mean that the underlying mission is now noble and honorable and will be carried out more effectively and successfully. Doesn't work that way either.

2) Further observation of OWS and its spawn has convinced me that it isn't going to be able to mainstream itself enough to matter politically. Perhaps it has, in the vague cacophony of messages and voices, some kernels that will appeal to more people than have joined in. But its underlying message is more about building an alternative structure, an open society predicated on a mostly liberal worldview. This works fine when you have a community of mostly liberal people participating in a free and open assembly with mostly shared views and grievances. It does not work fine when you have a diverse community with competing interests and grievances, including large numbers of non-liberal people (I do not consider some social conservatives to be "democratic" for instance. I consider them to be theocrats.) And that's just on matters where opinion is more pertinent than expertise and knowledge. I have no idea how a vague open community with these competing interests would assess the appropriate format for environmental regulations or tax policies. Good luck with that too.

3) In contrast to that. I think both on the 53% and 99% stuff. You're both bullshitting everyone and knock it off. First off, the 53% and the related complaining among some conservatives that the rest of the population is just a bunch of freeloaders. The appropriate response is either a) the Ron Paul-ish attitude that hooray many people don't pay any taxes! now let's get to work culling government spending! or b) laying out how your general ideology or policy perspectives would improve the lives of those 47%. Bitching about them makes you look like a bunch of whiny narcissists. I expect this sort of thing out of the Faux News types (and Erick Erickson who is stranded on CNN but lives on infusions from Faux). But I am pretty sure not all of the 53% types are Faux News types. At least I don't think they are. Note: The ones who don't realize that they're actually part of the 47% probably are.

Second. Income inequality matters. I get it. But real income growth and class mobility are much bigger problems than inequality in the long run. These are the problems that need to be addressed. Okay, yes CEO pay has skyrocketed. Wall Street bankers make a lot of money. I get these are visible complaints. Problem is I've seen this happen before. The "let's lynch the rich" routine happened in the 1930s too. It did nothing at the time to correct the scourge of income inequality and, more importantly, nothing to recover the economy and restart growth. Talking about the top 1% as though they are scapegoats is an amusing diversion for the rest of the public. But my understanding of the financial collapse in 2008 includes a lot of blame to go around. Some certainly goes on those bankers that everyone seems so mad about. But it also goes on some of the people who took out mortgages on otherwise worthless properties hoping to flip them or, worse, to expand their access to credit and fund their lifestyles. Or on government regulators or other bureaucrats (at the Fed for instance). And so on. Not all of these are people in the 1%. Moreover, the recession was almost global in its effects. That's an ultimately AD problem, not by itself a banking problem. Banks are just grease on the pan. If someone turns down the heat, it doesn't matter how much grease is on there, you're never going to fry anything. As in the late 20s and early 30s, the visibility of Wall St makes it easy to blame, but the problem runs much deeper than something like "a bunch of evil speculators/hedge fund managers". I think there's a strain that taps into the lack of middle class growth or socioeconomic mobility. So there's hope. But it's a helluva lot easier to get people motivated around "fuck the banks!" or "pay my college tuition loans!" than it is to get things situated around complicated problems like fixing K-12 schools and the stupidity of health care benefits being tied to employers. That worries me.

(Addendum: I fully endorse the problem of banks rigging capitalism through regulation and corporate largesse in the political arena, the latest fruits of which being large scale bailouts rather than monetary policy letting the chips fall as they may, etc. And so I fully realize that bankers deserve some ire. I'm annoyed at the idea that they are the only ones who do.

As always my politics are informed by the idea that the public sucks). 

25 October 2011

Those pesky voting machines

They're back. So with that in mind. I did my usual research on the local issues. You know, those things most people don't vote for or pay attention to.

The state of Ohio has three statewide ballot initiatives.
1) Amends state constitution to permit judges to be 75 and run for office. I don't see why there is a maximum age to begin with. If a judge is actually incompetent by age, then they would either retire, someone more competent and younger will run against them and/or they will be voted out of office. I'd prefer an amendment abolishing the maximum age requirement and not one replacing one arbitrary number with another one, slightly higher. That said, it seems better to have a higher age limit if we must have one than a lower one.

I'll probably vote yes here.

2) I think this has to do with collective bargaining restrictions. The only provision I saw that I actually liked or cared one way or the other was the provision that allowed teachers to work as teachers/public employees, without automatically having union dues deducted in order to do so. I think this is perfectly legitimate. Unions can complain about free-riders all they want, but I'd say that if their members or potential members cannot be convinced enough about the actual benefits the union is conveying upon them to continue to pay dues so as to be provided those benefits more explicitly, then the benefits provided by such union membership probably aren't as good as is commonly believed by union boosters. The results of such legal changes for dues payments in other states bear this out; lots of people stop paying when they're no longer required to do so.

Most of the rest of this bill appears to be useless on both sides. Banning and penalising strikes doesn't seem very useful. Just replace the striking teachers with new teachers and move on, or acknowledge the working conditions are terrible and make adjustments if new teachers cannot be had. Restricting negotiations doesn't seem sensible. Benefits like vacation or health care or pensions might be expensive, but arbitrarily removing them from the table isn't going to realistically control costs in a way that attaches to improving educational quality output. Performance pay needs some work before I'd say that it seems like a very good idea. I think on some level it needs to go into effect, but the methods of determining "performance" and the actual incentives offered need to be seriously looked at to see if they even have desirable results (improved academic and/or lifetime workplace performance by the student body for instance). I'm not convinced that they do. More properly, I'm not convinced that the methods we currently have to use do, but I do think there might be methods out there that will. I am convinced that there needs to be more discretion to remove incompetence. But that doesn't appear to be up for discussion with this law.

I will probably ignore this issue and not vote on it, but I'm leaning toward No (repealing the Ohio law). Mostly because I think it goes too far. I think it has some promising provisions and a bunch of ill-conceived ones surrounding them. I prefer not giving more power to governments than is necessary whenever possible.

3) Issue 3 is essentially Ohio's GOP attempt to repeal ObamaCare. I'm ambivalent on ObamaCare mostly because I don't think that it really substantively changed the status quo.  That means it's pretty dumb, but the status quo was, also, pretty dumb. And also it's basically RomneyCare (and Romney will probably be the GOP nominee). The experience in Massachusetts hasn't been very encouraging for someone like me in terms of watching health care costs become more sensible and more economical decision making occur, and the Massachusetts law is in fact more stringent about its mandates by having more severe penalties.

I will ignore this one. While I think ObamaCare or more precisely, national health care policies, do need to be seriously reformed, I don't think that states' efforts have done much to help us in doing so. All repeal at the state level will accomplish is legal confusion and will not encourage the more desirable end of attracting any more attention toward productive reforms and discussions surrounding bloated public entitlements (which account for most of our nation's health care spending, a position I would love to see decline but which the supporters of this bill do not, making them hypocrites undeserving of support).

Local stuff
The county has some minor price control issue relating to energy, but I won't get to vote on it because it relates to people who don't even live in exurbs, much less suburbanites like myself.
Hospital and school levies (including vocational school). I usually vote against these, but I'm re-thinking my opposition. I will probably vote against the local school, for the vocational one, and for the hospital. My preference would be for more of these sorts of public externalities to be funded in other ways (tax credits for instance rather than monopolising funding), but ultimately some public tax supports will be needed because of massive free rider problems. The benefit of educated, healthy citizens living around you are far more excessive and more easily shared than the purported benefits of unionisation (which essentially is privately extracted economic rent carved out of the public dollar rather than a genuine externality). So that means that I should pay for some of them too. My opposition to the local school can largely be explained by
a) that I went there and felt it wasn't much of a school, at least for educational opportunities
b) that it doesn't need more funding, what it is actually asking for, and probably could do with somewhat less. It's unclear to me what the school district wants more money for in other words.

19 October 2011

Run away!

The Mormons are coming?

I'm a little confused by all the fuss by a few evangelicals, and their semi-anointed one Rick Perry in particular, over Mormonism. My own personal perspectives are as follows:

1) Comparisons between Mormons and cults are useless (just as the same comparison falls flat with Muslims). All religions tend to resemble cults from the outside looking in. All a cult is a negatively viewed association of collected beliefs with maybe a harder exit strategy to it than a mainstream faith. That's hardly surprising that a fringe belief structure would adopt a compulsory system of adherence in order to sustain itself. From a sociological perspective as a result, there's really no meaningful difference between cults and sustained mainstream faiths. All tagging one faith as a "cult" does is establish that you don't like what the fuck those people over there are doing, but still wish to regard your own related practices as perfectly legitimate and beyond any examination or similar reproach. Hypocrisy is funny like that. Tolerance demands more.

2) Based on polling, it's liberals and progressives who have higher negative attitudes toward Mormons than conservatives. In other words, this isn't even likely an effective political strategy until the general election to attack Mormon candidates (read, Romney). The basic reason for this is that Mormons tend to share the culturally conservative attitudes and campaign slogans of other social conservatives on issues like homosexuality, drugs, etc. So while they might be looked askance at by these other conservatives for their supposedly weird religion, they're reliably voting the same way. Liberals have a radically different structure which opposes most of these opinions. The main reason they wouldn't vote for a Mormon candidate is less something like bias against Mormons but more bias against conservative candidates, of which Mormons are perceived, sometimes correctly, as being the more conservative options. There are certainly liberals who are objectively biased against Mormons for other, less savory reasons in the same vein as these conservative attacks, but voting for a candidate who doesn't openly espouse many, if any, shared ideals does not strike me as a very useful way to demonstrate non-biased religious perspectives.

3) I grew up in an environment knowing a few Mormons (between the higher proportion of Mormons and Asians around in higher level academic classes, evidently I had a very skewed childhood from most people). They didn't seem much different or bizarre from even the quasi-radical Christians I knew growing up. Much less everybody else. Maybe they have strange ceremonies and beliefs. So what? I've been to Catholic masses. They seemed pretty odd to me. I've been around evangelical Christians, and that too seemed strange (too strange in fact for me to continue to tolerate as it was heavily divorced from the reality of experience for Christians in this country, if not around the world). From the outside looking in, what people do privately to attest to their personal faith is just liable to be a set of strange traditions in one faith as any other. So I actually prefer it when they make this a bit of a secret rather than air it into the public. And those wacky beliefs, well, it's pretty hard to escape that you can find bizarre to the point of insane beliefs contained in any religion and its religious canon or dogma. Indeed, when these are pulled out, lacking any context, they are going to sound even more insane than usual. It's very possible to construct a statement of religious dogma or ideology for any faith that makes it sound utterly ridiculous.

Do people take even these most ridiculous perspectives seriously? Some certainly do, including certainly some Mormons. Does Romney? Maybe. I'm not sure I or anyone else should care. I wouldn't vote for him anyway, so examining his religious testimonial history strikes me as much more useless than examining his absurd foreign policy perspectives and pro-corporatist attitudes (not as bad as Perry on both counts, the main guy attacking his faith, but still). I assess these political beings on attitudes toward different issues and flexibility in getting things done. From that perspective, Romney seems like the most likely conservative candidate to win their primary (and the general). And since I'm not a conservative, it's hardly surprising that I find him distasteful for a general election. That says very little about whether I find his personal and private beliefs and associated religious practices distasteful or insane. I couldn't care less what they are.

Update. In a related topic, I don't particularly care whether Mormons are in fact Christians. That seems like a question for theologians to answer definitively. My understanding of both theologies is that it's certainly a distinct sect from other Christian sects, but there's also a wide latitude of what constitutes "Christianity" when examining the various sects involved. Given also the socio-political outlooks of Mormons and Christians, I think it rather likely that I'd consider Mormons to be some variety of Christian in the horseshoe contest. Still, I'd hardly call my opinion on this to be a definitive answer.

The main reason I bring it up is that I don't think it should matter much to anyone else either what the answer to that question is.

This is the sort of thing to get me into the street

Farm subsidies! Get out the pitchforks men! Kill the monster!

Essentially they're getting rid of a subsidy, once intended to be temporary and then made permanent (the danger of any supposed short-term government spending), and now they're replacing it by creating an insurance programme. Something that most every farm already has privately. And which the government, for some reason, helps pay for already.

This too was a major problem:
"But Dr. Smith, the Montana State economist, said the cost could be much greater because the plan used recent high crop prices as its benchmark.
“If farm prices move back towards what are widely viewed as more normal levels than their current levels, farmers will be compensated for going back to business as usual,” he said."

Why they couldn't pick an indexed price over several years rather than an inflated price (in part caused by subsidies), I'm lost there.

I note also that an idiot Senator from OHIO is involved. Thanks. I shall be picketing your office at the next election, especially if this farce passes. As it undoubtedly will.

17 October 2011

This is pretty much what the protests remind me of

What occurs to me

While watching Ken Burns Prohibition series, they tailed off toward its end with the flyby version of the FDR depression. There was, in that, one rather curious phrase which was uttered. That FDR's demands of Congress whilst awaiting inauguration included
1) The legalisation of beer (which turned into the 21st Amendment legalising all alcohol production and sale at the federal level, if not the state)
2) Banking reforms to stablise the banking sector, which was chock full of bank runs in the early 30s.
3) Budget cuts to balance the budget.

Yes, you read that third line correctly. Not only is that what Burns' used, but that's a core plank that FDR ran on; that Hoover was busily spending too much money. Earlier in there was this idea that FDR was running on repeal of Prohibition, or at least part of it, in part because it would give the government new sources of revenue to spend money. But since Hoover had passed a massive tax increase and a massive tariff increase, this wasn't likely to be a core problem for FDR. The fact that Hoover had also passed theretofore massive spending increases for social assistance was. Indeed what more he hadn't passed had been stymied by a hardcore resistance by Democratic members of Congress/Senate. I don't look at this record and think "well then, Hoover wasn't as bad as all that", I think it makes him look worse still, because of what he was spending on, how he raised taxes, etc. But it doesn't jive with the traditional story of the Depression era and the New Deal, so it gets glazed over in favor of a story where somehow FDR ran on a campaign in 1932 to massively increase government spending and involvement in the economy. He didn't.

While watching Ides of March (not terrible, but not very good either as movies go, there've been much better political intrigue movies). The line that gets oft repeated by many of either political party and stripe came up in its way. Somehow the logic goes that if we don't need to buy oil, we won't be our funding enemies and terrorists.

I recognize these nation-states as problems for American interests and sometimes supporters of things like terrorism, while also being significant oil producers.
1) Saudi Arabia (state sponsors terrorism, mostly against other Muslim countries, plus wealthy oil barons who also sponsor such actions)
2) Iran (sponsors Hez'ballah and Syria especially)
3) Russia (mostly annoying, much less so than 25-30 years ago)
4) Venezuela (mostly annoying, less so than Russia)
5) Iraq (just.. a complete mess)
6) Sudan (also messy, oil is somewhat diminished by the separation of South Sudan)
7) Libya (not clear how the revolt shakes out, but I'm doubtful for improvements)
8) Syria (not clear how the revolt shakes out, but very doubtful for improvement)

I don't put on the list as supposedly evil Muslim-Middle Eastern nations: Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt (Egypt is a mixed bag on the whole terrorism issue though), and then one could throw in as problems Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, North Korea, Cuba, Yemen, Palestine, parts of Lebanon, Myanmar, Colombia, etc. So far as I'm aware, none of those are major oil producers but yet often engage in a whole range of devious actions. 

So even if one adds up all the oil being bought in this way from these states by Americans, it's something like less than 20% of our domestic oil consumption. The other 80% comes from ourselves, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Norway, UK, etc (the argument against Mexico being included as a problem is that many of Mexico's problems are directly caused by the US drug war policies and related meddling). There are other countries which are far more dependent on oil from these hostile nation-states. Most of them as a result have very interesting foreign relations. But they don't get a ton of flashback terrorism from it. Therefore, the problem is not a) American energy requirements and trade, but rather something closer to b) American occupation and intense domestic involvement of other countries. I'd hardly say oil is the currency of terror given the number of countries running around without it causing similar problems.

There are sensible reasons to reduce our dependence on oil for energy, and to reform energy use generally toward other sources (wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, etc). But terrorism is hardly even worth mentioning as one of them. National security is barely worth mentioning even. Energy independence is not worth mentioning. And so on.

Basically. I really dislike it when our media narratives take on false and misleading messages that are already popular, but still completely wrong.

14 October 2011

A little of this, a little of that

A summary of unpleasant events that people do not like.

I have some sympathy for the problems of income inequality. But I don't think we're getting that resolved by passing a "Buffett rule" or a millionaires tax, etc. Major tax reform, either taxing capital gain as income (you would have to stop taxing corporations in order to do it) or taxing consumption instead of income, would go a lot further to dealing with that. Neither seems likely to come out of the people protesting as options they would be willing to support.

But the major point is the litany of woe caused by the banking/financial sector. 

As one can tell from these charts, monetary policy doesn't appear to have panned out in an ideal way. We are currently paying money for banks to sit on money rather than lend it back out, their intended economic utility (as the market's diviners of capital loan requirements in the general economy). And if one looks at this, one can see why we've basically been fucked for the last 3-4 years. Our monetary policy has a target inflation rate. We haven't hit it for 3 or 4 years now. One reason is that the banking sector is hording money instead of circulating currency as it is supposed to do. A good question is why? Why are they not making loans? Well one reason is that the government is paying better returns than they feel they could earn on those loans (I think they are wrong there, but that's because I know how issuing loans works for banks and just how well it can profit them to do it).

I'm not sure what sound monetary purpose that serves, but it clearly isn't panning out for the rest of us. I don't think you are likely to find a protest movement coalescing around reforming monetary policy (besides hardcore Paul-ites who don't want monetary policy to exist in the first place) or for having Obama appoint new members to the Fed board (he's had two open slots for his entire term and has done nothing). But I'd have to think it would be more effective for the economy than screaming about college loans.

12 October 2011

With my endorsement

College loans, discuss

So to mollify some of those protesters, this seems like a good idea. I'm fully aware that student loans were written into the bankruptcy laws because they had high default rates, and for that matter aware that they're the exception to the bankruptcy system. It still seems nuts that we force people who have no ability to pay to pay for something that is essentially a mortgage payment.

What that should mean is that they will have high interest rates or will be given out less frequently (and for fewer types of students, in need students/students studying fields more likely to pay out). This would indeed have the consequences of a) fewer people would go to college. I, like McArdle, don't find that very troubling because of the abundance of people in colleges who clearly have no idea what they are doing there. And for that matter, neither do the colleges. and b) colleges could have to stop raising tuition at astronomical rates because the government funded spigot of free money would go down in its flow. Which would mean in about 10-20 years or so college could again start being a reasonable expense for some that could be paid off during attendance (by working) or shortly there after (by taking smaller loans/working less).

Other options: adopt a percentage of income post-graduate scheme for payment. People who earn more could be paid off sooner, so they'd have some incentive to get to it, and others would have incentive to take lower paying jobs (teaching for instance, or different medical specialties for medical students) because they could now afford it instead of a fixed payment that might represent a very large amount of their income. This would also mean that the college has some incentive for either a) training people who could potentially earn higher income or b) training people such that they will most certainly have a job post-graduation. And not for training people in useless degrees. I think this admits that our over-credentialed/over-licensing society uses college largely as a degree mill for jobs rather than as self-enlightenment and self-enrichment, but we really cannot afford to continue lying to ourselves about the utility and experience of college as some sacred rite of passage at the prices we must pay.

11 October 2011

A quiz


Not surprisingly, Johnson wins for me. The stark contrast between his statements (or statements similar to his) and the rest of the field is pretty shocking and obvious. Probably this was an unfair test, given the extreme nature of some of the choice quotes for the other candidates. But it's a harmless use of a couple minutes of my time.

Also, I hadn't realized he was Lutheran. I don't particularly care what religious tidings people practice privately so long as they are largely private or unenforceable social mores within their own communities. Investigating his religious perspectives wasn't likely to take a high value since he didn't make them much of a campaign or even a public issue the way Perry, Santorum, Gingrich, Palin, or Bachmann does. Suffices to say, "Lutheran" is a somewhat useful explanation for why this has been the case.

So about that Cain guy

He seems to be popular because he has a very simple tax plan.

And he has a very simple tax plan because it wouldn't work. 

There are the obvious political objections that he'd never get something like that passed without a Republican super-majority; Democrats would block it. The plan is highly regressive, at least not without some other details in there to offset relatively higher taxes on the poor and small businesses versus much lower taxes on rich and large corporations. Not only does tax incidence matter, but also a strong utilitarian objection can be raised because of the diminishing marginal value of money as one increases their income. Taxing poor people makes much less sense than is commonly believed.

I'd prefer getting rid of corporate income taxes (and payroll taxes) rather than capital gains. Taxing income and job creation is less efficient economically than taxing growth or consumption. If you have to be insistent on getting rid of capital gains taxes, then I'd prefer a larger consumption based tax with some sort of offset or prebate (similar to the Fair Tax, but not so much), and still get rid of the corporate income tax rate. It has other economic and political problems associated with it that a consumption tax would not (much harder to game), and does not actually generate much revenue for the government relative to its public image. 

Next problem. Simply having a tax plan does not offer guarantees of growth. Fair Tax advocates also make wild-eyed claims about the growth of the economy based solely upon changes in the tax code (and upon which the "revenue neutral" aspect of their claims are entirely based). Cain's plan suffers from the same problem. Lower and simpler taxes we are told inspired the Reagan era growth.... except any serious economist/historian knows that Volcker's iron grip being released on the Federal Reserve had a lot more to do with that. The lower taxes that Reagan passed in 1982 did not a jot in increasing growth, and resulted in a very large tax increase in 1983 to semi-balance the budget from the massive deficit he created by lowering taxes. After which growth began (the 1986 tax reform simplifying things was much better, but by then 4-6% GDP growth was already in progress). In today's case as then, knowledge of monetary policy and pressing for a release of deflationary or decelerating inflationary pressures (as Ben Bernanke circa 2000 did, but not Ben Bernanke circa 2010) would probably do a lot more than any President's tax plan ever will. I certainly do not object to lower and simpler taxes. I think we could axe a ton of marginal deductions (starting with the home mortgage interest one), end up with a set of lower marginal rates to offset this and still significantly increase government tax receipts as a result. That's fine with me. What concerns me is the idea that such things would create job growth or some such. Because it has little to do with it. Has more to do with having an efficient government and light touch on the economy, with minimal redistributional pressures pushing money up the income ladder rather than down (we expend massive amounts of the national treasury giving money to people who already have money, and not as commonly believed, giving it to poor people).

Further problems. I have no problem with abolishing the payroll tax. I think this is a serious drag on job creation and funds programs that I would like to see function less as entitlements and more as social safety net roles anyway (medicare and social security). But first those programmes are popular among most of the American populace not named "me", and so gutting their funding is not exactly going to go over well. Second, even if we were to magically succeed in gutting their funding even a little, that money is still going to have to come from somewhere, and nowhere in Cain's tax plan is that source of revenue described. Those entitlements are #1 and #2 on the government's expenditure list and are mostly funded by payroll taxes right now. So if you propose to abolish the taxes funding them, either you should also propose to abolish those programmes (Cain hasn't), significantly reform them and describe how they would be funded out the general revenue (Cain hasn't), or admit you are an idiot who is pandering to other idiots (appears to be the case based on other Cain statements on issues like religious freedom, civil liberties, knowledge of foreign policy, etc).

In a race largely about the economy and the deficit, Cain looks more or less like Bozo the Clown because he's not offering much on the economy (to be fair, nor is anyone else) and he's offering a way to double down on the deficit by massively decreasing tax receipts and not listing off a bunch of spending cuts to go with them.

"Starve the beast" as it was once known, does not work. Reagan increased spending, not decreased. Bush increased spending, and deficits grew under both to what were once considered massive peacetime proportions. One suspects justly that a Cain administration would be little different. I cannot in good conscience let people delude themselves into thinking it will be otherwise.

10 October 2011


It occurs to me that while elements of practical/pragmatic thinking entertain my political philosophy outlook, I certainly hold a wide variety of views which are well outside the mainstream of political debate.

Given that, it also occurs to me that I seem to have only two "safe" topics with the average person, food and sports. That is: this is a topic that I know and they will likely know enough to be able to hold a conversation with give and take features. Other topics I am liable to have very few common ground threads of knowledge with such people. Music and entertainment subjects, I watch differently for movies and TV (I like excellent writing and complex plots and detest bad writing and simple plots with considerable social inaccuracies). And while I am aware that music has continued since 2002 or so, I haven't paid that much attention to know enough to discuss it. In the same manner, I have little to say about it with music prior to that era. Conversations on guitarists aren't exactly things I am knowledgeable about. I'm also not likely to encounter people with extremely similar musical tastes. Someone who likes both the Beatles and Tupac is kind of odd already. I want social commentary in my cultural consumption. Most of the time. Hence my disdain for country music. Which has social commentary, but of a society I find outdated and incomprehensible for its overt religiousity, flag-waving nationalism, and so on. I'm far more comfortable listening to the words of the oppressed and downtrodden than people who think themselves and their compatriots exceptional for dint of having been born.

In the meantime, I expend a considerable amount of mental energy on topics that do not concern the average person. I follow civil liberties abuses. Most of us will, we hope, never have cause to notice such things. I push a thought experiment relating to multiple partner sexual and marital arrangements. I doubt most people would be interested even were it available, including myself. For that matter, I am more than willing to discuss, usually abstractly, sex. A taboo subject. Or religion. Another taboo. Or politics. Or money and finances. All taboos. When I've amassed some expertise discussing such things that most people do not want in polite conversations, it leads back to discussing only safe topics like sports and food with most people.

09 October 2011


I hate to rain on a parade, well actually I seem to enjoy it, but I still haven't figured out what exactly the occupy Wall St people want. Or at least, I haven't figured out what that could be that would be a potential policy that would make sense. Watching footage, I get the sense that yes, there are a few Paul-ites who want the Fed gone who are there (and may or may not be all that pleased with the tea party). They're not the driving elements, and they're more likely practically another species from the garden variety token protesters.

What seemed to be the complaints
1) We don't like banks. Like not even that we don't like that the banks got money from the federal government through TARP, but that we don't even like banking period. I guess that Sharon Angle quote about chicken bartering found an audience? Because that's just utterly stupid. One thing to have gripes and misgivings about centralised bankers or corporatisation of regulatory commissions, those may or may not be sensible and actually relate to our problems. Quite another to say Fuck this and want to get rid of the entire institution of finance.

2) We don't like Citizens United. Sorry, I can't get behind people who don't like what other people have to say using their free speech. I certainly agree that too often the political system is bought and sold, but it was too often BEFORE the Supreme Court said corporations and unions could throw more money into it. The problem is a) that too much of the political structure can be gamed by political influence in the first place or b) that there is too much that is left up to the political structure rather than left free to markets and social forces. Not that some of those social forces say things with which you may or may not agree. That strikes me as an essential function of democracy that people express themselves. Including even yourselves. It's not a required function of democracy that I, or anyone else, have to think everything you say is smart and clever and wonderful. This problem arises also with the morons like Palin who think that's what free speech means is that you don't criticize other people for saying idiotic things.

What it means is that you don't get put in jail for saying idiotic things. (note also that overlooked in the CU case is the expanded freedom for non-profits to say things in elections, for unions, and for basically anyone but the actual press. Also overlooked is that not all large business-corporate entities want the same things. They're no monolith. The road to profit has many turns.)

3) We don't like paying for student loans for our useless degrees that didn't give a decent job, or any job. I think the supposed policy proscription here is to bailout these protesters the way banks were. I don't see how that a) helps them get jobs b) helps the overall economy (it mostly destroys a lot of issued credit) c) sends appropriate and socially necessary signals about how useful a particular degree will be for employment purposes (a problem we clearly already possess). If you wanted to educate yourself for other purposes, self-enrichment, self-fulfillment, etc, that's one thing, but in that case, one supposes that you would find your education worthwhile and not be bothered that you are burdened with debts and unemployment as a possible outcome. If you thought it was somehow leading to a career field, then I suggest that somebody needed to have a chat with you at some point and somebody needed to say "no". It probably won't.

4) I still don't see how this becomes a useful left-wing political movement. I see some elements for class strife, but mostly I see some pretend anarchists who don't like much of anything about the current system (but who, curiously, want the government to do something). There are some Tea Partiers who had similar dispositions or even some actual anarchist leanings, but most were conservatives dressed up in funny hats. From what I can tell about the Tea Party. It cost the Republicans a chance at controlling the Senate, and possibly a couple of House seats, and in a few other cases shifted their base farther to the right. This has meant that the party establishment has had no control over making deals to manage to accomplish much of anything of a tea party demand (things like cutting government spending require the ability to make deals to reduce spending or things like passing new laws to overturn some of the old ones, etc).

Unless I guess the demand was for ineffectual government that accomplishes nothing. I suspect a similar insurgency of actual socialists in the Democratic party would be similarly useless. But hey, I'm a pragmatist. Not an ideologue or a movement guy.

PS, that Peter King quote, yeah. Peter King is a moron first class of the moron brigade. Particularly on assessing potential threats. Why exactly would this mean that he's got some idea to speak seriously about protesters? What it says is that he's annoyed by media attention given to it, not that it has taken on any higher purpose and as yet deserves that attention. In the 60s, the movement of protests had many facets, but the primary unifier among them was opposition to the Vietnam War and civil rights for blacks. I'm not seeing any protest points being used that can be turned into a simple and effective policy for influencing national policies at all. We are not getting rid of banks or nationalising them. Corporate influence in politics isn't going away. And so on.

Wake me when you reach a consensus on something we might actually wish to do as a society to improve ourselves. (Get out of Afghanistan! or something, anything of that ilk).

03 October 2011


02 October 2011

obligatory sports post

Because this month and March are for me the busiest and best sports months, I figured I should jot down my thoughts on some of it.

1) I think the rain-suspended game 1 of the Yanks-Tigers series was suspicious, but it may or may not end up being significant to the outcome.
2) I think Verlander at least has a case to be AL MVP. Though I'd personally rather go with Miggy Cabrera from his own team. One of the three Red Sox hitters would each have a good case if the Red Sox hadn't blown a huge wild card lead (I'd have picked Ellsbury if they had made the playoffs). Matt Kemp in a decent universe would have gotten a lot more media attention for a potential triple crown/ 40-40 season. Didn't (and didn't accomplish either in the end anyway, missed by one home run and a few base hits). Probably should win NL MVP. Won't. Ryan Braun would be my second choice and should end up winning it. If neither does I will be very confused.
3) The impending lack of an NBA season start is going to be very annoying. I like my basketball fix to start very soon after baseball dries up. I don't care for the American football and waiting until college basketball starts is an extra month or so. Blergh for organised labour contract disputes.
4) I don't particularly care about the conference re-alignments in college sports. I think the reason this is annoying the media types is that a) it's flagrantly about money and thus upsets the network executives who have to make TV contracts with the new conferences not knowing who will be in the conference in 5 years or so, naturally this annoyance is demanded to be demonstrated by their employees b) it upsets the media types' personal nostalgic sense for what the "Big 10" used to be or what the "Big East/ACC",  which is a fun story but has little actual relevance for whether the current or future product is or can be better or worse and c) it upsets a false sense of us-them rivalry concerning those aforementioned conferences. There are still traditional rivalries between teams that should be mostly maintained even during these otherwise radical shifts. Duke-Carolina. Oklahoma-Texas. Auburn-Alabama. Ohio St-Michigan. These work in the way that Red Sox-Yankees still matters in baseball or Patriots-Colts to football. But even those significant individual rivalries are mostly ways to get semi-casual sporting fans engaged in consuming the sport. The even more nebulous conference rivalries are much more trivial to the casual fan, thus they won't care. After it is explained to them why if they do ask about it at all. And the most engaged fan is unlikely to care very much about realignments as long as he (still mostly "he") can be swiftly provided with quality product on the field. They will want to see better games between high powered and skilled opponents. If these realignments allow for that, so be it. In an era where it's possible for a single basketball conference to send 10 or 11 teams to the postseason tournaments, it makes no difference what conference it is or how it is structured so long as those are 10 or 11 qualified and solid teams. Versus the previous era where a single conference could, by rule, send only one or two, where it did matter very much how those conferences were structured and who was in them. Today is not yesterday.

Purists will complain, but purists have complained about most every change in sports over the last two decades. Which have seen some highly radical shifts in sports, BCS championship, wild card and inter-league play in baseball, instant replays, expansion and divisional realignments in all sports, etc. Most of those shifts were consumed eagerly by the public which has poured ever greater attention and money into the sporting world as it has shifted. Purists will lose that argument as a result. I think there are ways that a sport could be shifted that could cause it problems, redefine or lose its base of support, (highly radical rule changes for instance). But these changes are not them.

Much bigger problems for these sports arise out of things like competing with high end televisions and constant streams of information that can be consumed in the comfort of one's home rather than dealing with the physical discomforts of rowdy and drunken fans, public bathrooms, expensive parking. Rather than whining about conference realignments and minor rules changes, "they" should focus more attention on this issue.

A week updated

One other point. Concerning those protestors in NYC.

I may not think they have a good idea what they are protesting (other than some vague mistrust and dislike for the financial sector).

But I don't think the appropriate response of the state is to pepper spray them either.

A weekend

1) PBS is running yet another Ken Burns documentary. It appears to be largely similar to Okrent's book (Okrent appears himself, so that's one obvious hint). It's amusing. As I recalled from my reading and previous encounters with Prohibitionist history: a) Ohio sucks and b) Wayne Wheeler should really have a rather large section dedicated to him in most any history textbook. Maybe a couple other names could be involved, but he has to be covered. Period. Most people don't even know who he is and he's essentially the man responsible for getting the 18th Amendment across the finish line. (Or maybe people responsible for getting the 21st across would be useful too, but it's difficult to see a lot of enthusiasm for studying, say, the DuPont family).

Among the things that sticks out the most from studying Prohibition is the WCTU's largely successful attempt to popularize educational textbooks that deliberately supplied misinformation relating to alcohol and alcohol consumption. It reminds a lot. A lot. A LOT, of the evolution "debates" today, where misinformation is attempted to be fed (and in the case of private evangelical schools and their texts, or of many home schooled children, successfully so). Or even more so of abstinence only education which follows exactly the same model of attempting to scare children away from something. Only to run into reality when, most, teens actually have sex, don't die immediately from some horrible disease and then, only somewhat inaccurately, conclude that adults must be full of shit.

2) Speaking of science education.

This has a set of fascinating discussions. First off, part of the problem with science today is that it appears so divorced from the common person's experience. People do not see, or rather they take for granted, the many, many, ways that scientific discoveries and inventions have improved, enriched, or otherwise amused their lives. The creative endeavors made possible by modern genetics are among the most likely to be noticed in the near future. So talking about things like the evolution of modern cellular biology and its continuing applications (such as the adaptation made by sea slugs becoming photosynthetic), and its possible technological applications moving forward is a huge blessing. Something like the neutrino speed measured at some billionths of seconds faster than expected is unlikely to really be noted in any way by the common man, even though if confirmed it might kick over a mild revolution in quantum and particle physics. Science, for all its wonderful benefits at offering better good explanations for the world around us, also has the burden of offering ways to deal with that world around us in a practical way from time to time in order for most people to notice and appreciate it (temporarily) and then allow it to fade back into the background.

Secondly, the debate at the end about educating the people generally concerning science is enlightening. Explaining scientific principles goes beyond bright colors and playful displays and exhibits designed to appeal to 5 to 10 year old children and is a worthy cause for scientists to ask themselves how they could improve their PR situation, manner, and messaging. There are plenty enough of biologists who take the position of "those people are idiots" and don't bother either listening to them (a sensible enough response), addressing and explaining their concerns away, or in any other meaningful way engaging with, their public opposition in such debates. While I don't think the specific strategy devised is necessarily always useful, I do think that hammering people with information in response to their vigorous denials and objections can have its uses. It has problems, owing to basic human psychology, of course. And that didn't sound like it was addressed in full (the problem of confirmation biases and of people rejecting sources of information and any associated evidence that don't conform to their pre-conceived notions). Some level of engagement between the players involved would perhaps help there, I'm just not sure that the methods described will necessarily work (from my own experiences having talked with creationists on this issue).

I do feel it's a modest blight upon our scientific credibility as a nation-state that we have a margin of people much higher than some place like Kuwait who actively and vigorously doubt even the most basic scientific conclusions. But one way to look at it is that we also have the luxury of a nation-state that affords people the luxury of time to expend and waste on this issue in the first place. It's a first-world problem that a place like Kuwait wouldn't have. Of course, it's a first world problem that is largely limited to Americans. Which is kind of the point of the problem.

Having said all that, however, I disagree with the importance that such a dearth of information actually plays. As disconcerting as debates over geological time scales (or even the existence thereof) can be and their relation to the wider evolution "debate", I don't really think such things actually effect most people's lives. People who aren't actually studying evolutionary biology or psychology, or other academic subjects like quantum physics or developmental economics, may be misinformed or uninformed dolts on those issues, but they may have other pursuits in life which are perfectly valid ways to spend their time educating and enriching themselves (and some pursuits which are less so, Dancing with the Stars for instance). More to the point, this collective lack of knowledge has little impact on public policy. In what way does it actually impact the rest of us? Sure there's the matter of the local school boards and a few textbook publishers, and that's annoying and slightly terrifying. But it's slightly terrifying to someone like me largely because WE (all of us, religious and irreligious alike) made it a matter of public policy in the first place by appointing local school boards to advise on curriculum and then made such positions electable and accountable to the public. To my mind, any issue where we've injected public policy where there ought not to be any governing interest by the state is disconcerting, and there are all manner of sensible philosophical and economic reasons why this is. The general public's misinformation, disinformation, or uninformed sensibilities on virtually all matters of public policy is a serious problem. The general public's lack of scientific knowledge is merely an annoyance by comparison, and much more easily allayed and fixed.

The only issue at present where scientific ignorance appears to present a meaningful obstacle is climate change. And here I think the most salient objections are not "it's not happening!", but rather are things like "China and India don't care and we can't yet make them" or other related geopolitical problems. There are problems in public debates concerning a lack of understanding of scientific inquiries and methods of asking better questions. Something they don't quite cover in their debate is the idea that while science doesn't answer certain questions very well (what do ugly people look like?, seriously?), there are plenty of questions that are answerable in some empirical way that could inform those questions or could be asked instead. The public, the media, or the even the scientists themselves, "asking the wrong questions" to me is a much more serious problem than the public's lack of interest in cellular biology or some other reasonably obscure concern that they sensibly ignore in favor of daily and lifetime considerations where their time is better applied. But getting people to occasionally ask for some qualifications, some evidentiary support, and seeking out these things themselves, if available, when they aren't provided would be a better use of their time.

01 October 2011

A week

1) I'm not sure what the deal with the perpetual search for the next fling within the Republican party is. I'm not entirely displeased that Christie's the "next" thing. He's a mixed bag, like most major political figures, and he's no libertarian, but he does at least run some high notes out there about how governments actually work for the idiots among us. And also things like "Muslims are not all terrorists, so shut it morons", which is refreshing if sad that it is refreshing.

I just don't think he will actually run so it all seems sort of pointless. (Plus his positions on homosexuals and immigrants are basically persona non grata in the national stage GOP, and they're still too far to the right for my taste... and his positions on foreign policy are really, really ill thought out. Which is to say that they're marginally more thought out than say, Romney or Perry's, but still on the dumb side of foolish things to say).

2) Speaking of Muslims and terrorists, we finally got around to killing American citizens without trials. After all that unpleasant cheering over the death penalty, I guess we figured we should just skip it. I'm not sure that our friend in Yemen is necessarily the most sympathetic figure of course. But making our policy choices based on sympathetic figures isn't any better than making them based on unsympathetic figures. A war which has assumed global characteristics (or at least we assume it to have global characteristics) means that enemy combatants can be killed anywhere at any time. To an extent, this is in fact reasonable. What concerns us now is these means being used against American citizens (or otherwise used against people living or visiting our legal jurisdiction).

In a related story, the FBI has busied itself creating yet another disgruntled worshiper. This time with the inventive method of using remote controlled planes to blow up Washington. Or perhaps a Bell of Tacos or something similarly useless. I realize that there are really people out there who want to attack or do something otherwise heinous. Our friend in Norway was a considerable reminder of this. I'm not convinced that running around encouraging them in order to arrest them is the best method of defence. Kind of seems like entrapment problems?

3) In another related "why does this matter" story, a bunch of protesters showed up in Wall St. I have more or less the same reaction I had to the tea party protests. It sounds and looks like an incoherent mess. There's a lot of "dirty commoner" feel to both formats and a lot of reading signs and then wondering what the hell such people were smoking. I'm still not much impressed that the tea party has mattered much on a national stage, if at all, and it largely impressed upon me the notion that vast numbers of Americans have become so disengaged with politics that they don't have any idea what they are supposed to be protesting. They might as well be annoyed with Roswell conspiracies for all the sense they've made (cut taxes, not medicare/defence/ and pretty much any popular government programmes that account for most of the budget...). I'd hardly expect a quasi-economic protest to go off with a much better informed set of dumb masses. If there's anything substantial to our daily lives that the public knows less about than politics, it might be economics.

Naturally, I've seen commentators and activists trying to anoint this as the leftist response to the tea party. Good luck with that. Let me know when you get around to having a point besides "we hate bankers!".