29 July 2012

Chicken Little

I'm not really sure why the Chik-fil-A thing became news. But since I've been required to pay attention to it, here are some notes

1) They really hammed up the Henson-toy promotion pull on PR by claiming it was a safety issue. That's not helping their position in the slightest to do slimy things to former business partners who disagree with them. To be fair, the mayors of Boston or Chicago should not have come out and declared they might ban the opening of restaurants on this basis. Expressing displeasure as a public official speaking as a private citizen might be fine, but passing legal sanction to formally require everyone else to share in their private displeasure is not. 

2) I don't actually care if a corporation is run by former Nazis as long as they are complying with the  laws we have regarding discrimination. If Chik-fil-a as a rule, or even as an effect, was treating homosexual or progressive customers differently, I'd be far more concerned than with their political advocacy disagreeing with my views. I haven't even seen evidence of any problem where they might be refusing to hire anyone.
2a) This is a different order problem than the Jim Crow South where the laws imposed discrimination. I'm not entirely convinced that laws imposing non-segregation were unnecessary to help resolve that significant equality issue, but I do think a business that treats some people differently by preventing their business as consumers or labour as employees could be in deep trouble economically if other businesses would not be required to do likewise.

3) I think if people want to boycott a business over a political or public stance on some issue, go right ahead. I don't go there (or KFC) anyway so I'm not all that worked up about it. They aren't losing any  business if I declare that I am not going there in the future. I'm not impressed that boycotts typically work in this way however. It is different if it's a civil disobedience matter as with sit-ins in the South where people can be arrested for agitating for equal rights as opposed to an uncertain number of people not conducting direct business transactions. What seems to happen instead is that the announcement of a boycott kicks up support instead of equating always to reduced business. Maybe sometimes they'd work but usually nobody cares for long enough. Whole Foods isn't suffering so far as I know a continued backlash from their CEO's HSA backing op-ed 2 years ago. Perhaps this is different because the issue involved is gaining popular support and appears to be a significant issue for many, many people. Regardless, I'm not going to tell people not to try to express their displeasure with corporate or CEO behavior and statements through economics.

4) Wealthy, powerful, or otherwise successful people often present their personal beliefs and views to the public as an effect of their status and platform of access. We aren't required to agree with these as a matter of course and they are permitted to exercise their rights to speech to say what they want to say. What they should not expect is that people will agree with them and be silent if they do not agree. One way to exercise their disagreement is to stop doing business with their companies and businesses (or for other celebrity type figures, stop going to movies or buying their music, etc). For some companies and figures involved this is easier said than done.

As an example of this, I've been far less fond of the Spurs since discovering that their (now) best player (Tony Parker) was hanging around with "his friend" Chris Brown, a popular musician/asshole when he injured his eye recently in a bar fight. I will be less inclined to watch their games now as a consumer of NBA games. As a counter example, Chik-fil-a is a large corporation with franchised ownership, some of which very likely do not share their CEO's vision of so-called traditional marriage. These people will have much greater difficulty extracting themselves economically than say a random employee or customer but may still wish to differ on their views.

4a) Conservatives, or other people defending Cathy/Chik-fil-a in this, should not confuse the meaning of the 1st amendment protections to free speech to include protection from a) media criticism b) requirements that other people should shut up and be quiet if they don't like what he said, c) that people cannot be fired for what they say by a private entity. The government, as was (briefly) suggested in Boston, should not have much to say about it. That's what the 1st amendment means and protects is government restriction and action. It doesn't protect agreement, disunion, media attention, or even private business decisions and speech restrictions. If you say something that is unpopular, be prepared to be criticised for it, to lose friends or associates, possibly alienate family members, etc.

26 July 2012

I am weird. Thank you for noticing.

As yet one more example of my weirdness: I find guns and people's desire to carry them around everywhere a demonstrable sign of their own barbarism and incivility, as opposed to as they would see it as a response to perceived barbarism and incivility and on top of the actual barbarism and incivility demonstrated by gun-related violence. I would prefer a society where people do not feel a need to arm themselves and that they are not threatened by violence.

But I am still intensely skeptical of most gun laws and restrictions as a way to get people to stop doing this thing I disapprove of or as a means to get rid of gun violence.

Most significantly:
1) I see illicit markets surrounding many cities for the sale of vice and narcotics as a source of intense extra-legal competition for profits. Resulting violence is not unexpected and a resulting need for escalating armament is not unexpected in an environment already involving illicit products implying law violations. Much of this violence has decreased over the last couple of decades. In large part because the profitability of the goods of sale has decreased. (Note: this is not related to government success in interdiction. The problem is the goods are cheaper and easier to obtain and the only barrier to entry is that they are illegal to possess and distribute and that you risk personal safety or arrest). I'm not sure how one successfully disarms this kind of area if we wish to retain the illicit nature of the products. The motivation for force is pretty clear.

I also am aware that in most places, there's a clear delineation between people who have guns and people who do not. Gun sales are up, but they are to fewer and fewer people. I'm not entirely sure why someone would want 5 or 15 different weapons myself (preparation for zombieland or some other imagined hellscape?). But I'm not entirely sure why we would or should restrict these amounts either. Gun violence isn't inherently linked to people who have more guns that I'm aware of. It's linked to people who have guns period.

2) Prevention of mass shootings appears to be the core impetus of public sentiments. Concern over "routine" gun violence does not interest the average person who attends to political events through passive consumption of news and public will. Preventing mass shootings through most proposed forms of gun control is unlikely.
  • Mental disorders - People who are mentally disturbed are not actually a category that is more or less prone to violence than is common and people may purchase weapons at a time when they would not appear disturbed and own them for many years until they could become violently disturbed. Guns are a fairly durable good.
  • convicts/felons - I suppose this is reasonable, if it's confined to violent felons (a felony is actually fairly easy category of crime to get bumped up to, depending on your state laws and city ordinances it can be an absurdly minimal criminal action). Also many places already have it as an established control to be checked. It might be difficult to implement and control for private sales as a requirement but we could establish ease of access to a criminal database to encourage it. Were I to own a weapon or a stock of them, I might be concerned that my potential customers were not about to cause bloody mayhem the moment they walked off my property or out of a gun show.
  • Background checks on sale of ammunition. If someone can buy a gun after passing through a background check, why should they have to pass an ammo check? Maybe its something odd like armor piercing rounds or high caliber rounds? But none of those are associated inherently with mass violence.
  • Restricting magazine size manufacture - Again, while this could make sense as a restriction against mass violence, a magazine is a durable good. Millions of extended magazines are already out there. It also doesn't take that long to reload against an unarmed crowd such that it would save many lives on its own. I'm not sure how this is effective at saving lives. It doesn't take 40 bullets to kill someone. It just takes one and the real problem with gun violence is the sheer number of people killed, not mass murder media events. A mass shooting plan would not require someone to purchase at once a substantial amount of ammunition and thus attract legal attention. A smaller quantity limit for such a check would only tax government resources and attention. It's possible that this ought to be a higher priority for government attention sure. That is an argument. But we have a lot of other things we're asking it to do on top of that. Removing some other (useless or even harmful) priorities could be more effective than increasing the signal that one of them is more important in an already noisy environment of priorities.
  • Restricting sales for body armor - I have a hard time seeing how we could morally justify banning the sale of a defensive item even if it is then used in the commission of morally repugnant violence. And given the disturbing tendency and frequency of our police forces to invade homes of non-violent suspects (or their neighbours) with military grade gear on, it's a little strange to presume this is a necessary step to prevent some kind of arms race. In that case, I'm more worried about what the government is already doing than what some random and crazy citizen could do. Also. To me, this is akin to an argument that something can be used for nefarious ends therefore it should be abolished, while ignoring that it has the potential for positive ends. I don't think that analogy is necessarily strong. I have a hard time envisioning a desirable scenario where large numbers of private citizens are walking around wearing body armor. Nevertheless, I also don't see how it should be carefully restricted and controlled when it has few harmful capacities of its own. Any restriction on body armor sales is liable to be constructed out of the same objections as those on guns and we seem incapable of designing effective statutes there to deter or catch a typical mass killer before they act out a lethal intention. I'm not sure how it would help us to do the same to try to remove their armor.
  • Restricting sales for assault weapons - I am more sympathetic to this kind of claim in theory. But in practice it's rarely been applied to the actual mechanics of a weapon because there's not much functional difference between what is designed as a normal hunting rifle and a semi-automatic assault rifle. So what happens is the laws are constructed to ban less useful distinctions for those that "look like assault weapons" (whatever that is interpreted to mean). Which is basically like saying "I'm afraid of guns", rather than I care about safety. I am afraid of guns, but I'm not worried about what they look like.
3) I am in practice sympathetic to the aims of reducing violence and even gun ownership in our society. I'm not entirely sure how we get from here to there however by focusing solely on guns. I think a lot more attention needs to go on people and why there is violence, and that guns (or at least some kinds of guns, like handguns), certainly seem like a complicating factor in violent action. If not an impetus. What concerns and confuses me is that the messaging of for the most popular anti-gun campaigns is not very well focused on these issues and seems more focused on issues tangential to violence, like fear or discomfort around weapons.

My discomfort with people and their guns has less to do with the guns themselves and more to do with the type of people who would carry such things around all the time on their person. I would be reminded constantly of a needless fear in their presence; a presumed need or desire to be armed at all times as though they no longer live in a civil society governed by laws and they are endangered by powerful and violent others at any given moment. I find myself concerned that there are such badly deluded people in a world with diminishing crime and suburban or otherwise upper middle class lifestyles as opposed to people who might live in a much more dangerous environment, and recognize that this sort of threatened fight or fright response to imagined threats is just as liable to incite needless violence as a more combative situation. I am thereby much more activated by a fear of people who might commit violence than by the tools by which they choose to wield it.

I'm not sure how you construct laws to get people to abandon a sense of assault by "others" or to foster greater senses of cooperation and community in a diverse society. It might however be a sufficient start for people absent these fears to settle into communities that are less tolerant of weapons brandishing and display in public, or to shame those who feel need for arms to carry them around in concealment constantly, and to allow people who imagine their environments to be under siege to devolve into actual siege by continuing to waste precious resources and time on weapons.

Voting and fraud and other scary things.

So it sounds like that Pennsylvania law purporting to deal with voter fraud will either a) be struck down by the state courts as violating the state constitution or b) kick off a bunch of older (mostly white) voters, who tend to be more Republican voters. Which is kind of amusing. If you like that sort of thing.

What that all says is that voter fraud, as a purported issue, is
1) overblown. It's unlikely to affect seriously a large election. It's also unlikely to affect it, in my view, when these misguided laws are applied. That doesn't mean that the laws are okay. I oppose them philosophically in addition to their practical problems of not being very effective or useful. It just means the harm is usually not "someone won an election when they shouldn't have". At least in a modestly liberal democracy where there are avenues to challenge dumb and ineffective laws. If we were talking about Russia or Egypt, maybe we'd have to re-evaluate how that works.
2) a non-partisan issue because it's difficult, both constitutionally and politically, to craft the laws in a blatantly discriminatory way to exclude one sides' voters over the other.

Of the more interesting voter impacts is all the redistricting challenges that have gone on. In Ohio, there's a new ballot issue on appointing independent commissions for redistricting instead of the state-gerrymandering approach. I'm a little confused however at the purported goals of doing so or at least how they differ from gerrymandering as it usually works.

"Districts need to be competitive and they must keep communities together."

I concede "competitive" could be a laudable goal for elections. In theory. I don't see that it needs to be taken for granted that there must be competitive districts always. But it does at least offer the possibility of changing representation from time to time and imposing a non-arbitrary term limit (which is appealing because I think term limits are a limitation on voter freedom and are functionally useless for resolving special interest problems and "lame duck" issues). Still. It conflicts heavily with the ability and apparent interest of human beings to settle themselves in politically homogenous communities. Eg, Cleveland proper is going to vote "Democratic"most of the time, while some of its suburbs are not. What that means is that at least several districts are never going to be "competitive". Generally speaking, appealing to the public on the impressive nature of those goals is going to conflict with the ability to implement them because they are at times mutually exclusive. That means you'll end up gerrymandering in several places or you'll end up with communities that are split and mixed and muddled with others and your supposed end goal will not, and indeed cannot, actually be served. I absolutely detest such useless symbolism in legislation and law and public action to suggest the appearance of concern with a problem but in practice lack of a solution to it.

I personally do not care whether its Democrats or Republicans who can in theory control the state's Congressional caucus. I'd prefer neither. But since this is a fairly evenly divided ideological state on many issues (it's an old Rust Belt union-centered economic state but also a modestly socially conservative state on many issues as well, historically this is more true than now), I see no obvious reason that it cannot or should not redistrict in a way that risks "dividing communities". It's a divided swing state nationally, so we should expect division in its politics when we drill down into them. If this is so, perhaps there are other reasons that the current plan of redistricting might be unsound, but "gerrymandering" doesn't sound like one of them. And many of those reasons are likely as cynically political as those that motivated the redistricting in the first place (according to opposition to said plans). Which is not an encouraging device for attracting my support because it starts up my own cynically political interests in exchange.

If you want my help, throw in some non-winner take all representation and basic reforms to the election's system for third parties. Because I want another libertarian in Congress. Fuck you guys.

20 July 2012

The second of a set of two

Now that I've seen the entire Nolan arc, I would state that he's used Batman very effectively as a means to investigate, and in effect parody, the power that the nation-state uses in things like fighting terrorism.

A city in crisis essentially appoints one man to save them, to fight for them. That can work only because Bruce Wayne is an immortal icon, with incorruptible values, and exists with a power that isn't granted by his actual personal power directly but by assuming the guise of a theatrical legend. In real life, we have no such icons.

We have only men and women of normal values. Even Wayne struggles with these values.

He tortures Joker by beating him savagely in a moment of desperation. It doesn't work out as he expects. And he promptly goes off and invades the wrong country...err, rather he goes to the wrong building. He devises a system of super surveillance to catch this master criminal but even he doesn't trust himself with this power and leaves it to a subordinate in his mission, a man of wisdom and conscience greater than even himself. He allows a city to lie to itself and to apportion ridiculous and extraordinary powers of detention and thus subvert due process so that its people have a chance at hope, a path that can only backfire on itself spectacularly when the lie is exposed. (I always found the Platonic concept of a noble lie disturbing, even if I have rather less faith in human beings capacity for decency and a determined course of progressive advancement than many. I preferred Machievelli's satirical approach to governance and manipulation to Plato's cynical abuse of same.)

The message here: if even Batman can't walk the line between what is right and wrong without sometimes straying, without sometimes going too far in the pursuit of what is just and decent and good, even if he won't ever compromise on those values (for example he personally only "kills" Raz, and it can be argued a few faceless henchmen plus one important character, in the course of the trilogy and saves even the Joker), then what chance do the rest of us have with what we have to work with, petty, divided, and ambitious human beings of opportunity.

The first of a set of two

I've been watching the campaigns unfold and have mostly been silent because they're not very interesting. I've already long settled on voting for Gary Johnson, and most of what gets talked about in campaigns isn't very exciting prior to debates when candidates might (and I stress might), have to outline some actual plans with more flesh for our approval. Something they've largely avoided doing so far.

That said, I'm also living in Ohio, and Ohio, as most election observers will tell you, is one of the key battleground states in this (as in most) cycles. Along with Florida and Virginia and North Carolina, there are no states of greater importance to media coverage, and by extension, to campaign coverage and ad warfare. That means I get inundated by wacky campaign ads from PACs and committees and all sorts. And most of these ads offend my sense of intelligence by insulting it. "Outsourcing"? Really? That's a problem now? And so on with bad commercial after bad commercial.

And then, into that open maw of insanity, there's the Warren moment.

I'm having a hard time seeing how calling Republicans anarchists is at this point anything other than an insult to anarchists. I don't agree with their moral authority conclusions relating to governments of otherwise free societies, but I find they're at least consistent and intellectually sensible conclusions based on those moral judgments rather than partisan hacks who say one thing and do the other, more precisely who say one thing and then do the other when it becomes politically expedient to suddenly support or oppose it.

I'm also having a hard time seeing how these arguments are actually useful. Supporting basic public goods or resolving externality and free rider problems through central action of governments is not the same as saying "hey we should spend a lot of money on X", or "we should spend a lot of money on X at this level rather than at this level", or "we should force lots of people to pay for X through taxation", instead of some other means. Those are more complicated legal and moral arguments, to say nothing of economic objections that could be raised in some cases (light rail for instance). One would have to show that we need to use a government body to resolve X, that X is a public goods problem of some kind, that there's no other effective means to do X, and that a proposed plan Y actually does X, and then if we get through all of those steps with modestly positive results, then we might have something worth doing. Perhaps, it could be argued, that means that we don't tax people enough to pay for what we need to do through public action (though this is doubtful given that there are a lot of things we do that aren't public action problems or that we expend too much time and money on as public action problems relative to what we could do instead). That's a really strange way to set up an argument for higher taxes on mostly successful people with the presumption being that either a) their gains are ill-gotten from rigging the system say, or b) that they're not paying enough for public goods that ALL people could have used to their advantage to succeed. The proper line of attack is on A, not on B. That line of attack has allies on both the left and right, with public choice theorists and rent seeking economic analysis in the academic world, and then Austrian economists or outright socialists in some other world.

Maybe that line of attack prescribes a particular set of actions or maybe it does not, and maybe those actions are at one level of government versus another or one branch versus another, and so on, but at least that's the argument that we ought to be having. And not an argument that roads require taxation and government. Because very few people want to have that argument. And really, people pretending that that's the actual argument, that there's that much of a gap between "conservatives" and "liberals" just look stupid as a consequence when I'm well aware they're usually much smarter people than that (on both sides).

I suspect the only reason we're having this argument instead is that somehow a very small marginal income tax rate change has come to be defined as the difference between having socialism and a free economy. When that change will do very little, if anything, to alter the dynamics of our economic mode, will do nothing to alleviate the acquisition of wealth and inequality therein, will do nothing to resolve other social issues, nothing of consequence to resolve fiscal indiscipline, and so on. This means that taxes somehow become a core value structure, and other actual core values (say, free market economics instead of crony capitalism) are ignored.

Dark Knight Rises.. and the other matter.

Quick thoughts.
1) Bane is, well Bane. He isn't the Joker, it wasn't Heath Ledger.. but they did amazing things with a few lines delivered in a disturbing way, a legend, his fights and plotting, and especially his eyes. Joker had those creepy scars and crazy lip movements, like a serpent. Bane had a creepy mask and eyes that said everything when they decided to speak. I am a huge fan of movies using very clever use of silence. His fight with Batman (the first one), there's no messy dramatic music, and he doesn't say very much (at first). But it's obvious almost from the very beginning that he's in total control of the situation in a way that no other opponent has ever been. Joker and Ra's had dramatic schemes and a good deal of control, but not total power. He also has, like Ra's did, a curious touch of... I guess empathy you'd say.

1a) I do not get people/reviews complaining about his voice as supposed mumbling through the mask. I felt it was about as clear as Darth Vader's, and that, like Vader, he had a number of highly memorable lines. This might be a residual from earlier footage released for previews months ago and not a compliant relating to the final cut? I'm not sure but I found it pretty easy to hear personally. (In fairness, I have an excellent ear for voices. It plays well with my mimicking abilities). Overall Hardy did really well with it. He had utterly terrifying eyes and expressions and a demeanor of control or a dominating presence that was what we should have expected here.

2) The ending, and the twist to it, both flowed well into the movie, and both weren't that surprising. Surprises were in some of the things that the film had already showed us for the scope and epic nature (things like those bridge/football stadium explosions, which in the actual film are small things). I don't mind an ending that's predictable if you've been paying attention or which fits together with all the little clues. I really don't mind it if things that already seemed impressive in scope before seeing it all together are diminished by the grander scope made possible in the full film.

3) I liked Catwoman and she wasn't as campy as the Michelle Pfieffer version (but then again, neither is Batman or Joker). It was a solid choice because she's always a bit of a foil for Batman's sense of justice; something to remind you that a vigilante who can investigate and punish criminal action just outside of the law isn't quite right either and she blurs those lines well by pointing out where they are (if that makes sense). I don't know if it was a memorable character versus Bane or Joker or Raz or even Two-Face. But she was interesting in a unique way from those. Dent/Two-Face for example exists outside of the law only truly once he embraces his "two-faced" nature with a little help from madness and grief. He doesn't live there, he visits there for a short time and then goes from one side to very firmly standing on the other. Catwoman is the one villain/hero that exists very firmly perched on that borderline in a way that Batman, were we to think on it, and especially in the events of this film, also does. Between Hathaway's performance and her costume, I didn't see very much to complain about here.

4) Pace was a little off early. You got the sense that Bane was in motion, that people wanted to know what he was up to (even people helping him). In retrospect they set up a lot of later action, but at the time it seems slow. I have not decided yet whether it is better or worse than the other two films. Dark Knight had some jarring flaws (Rachel's character being one of the worst of them) but one really awesome and mysterious character and a series of intricate prisoners' dilemma plots based on the predictable nature of responses to danger by an organised society (the terror comes there from someone not playing by the rules). I think the problem is that the movie was probably intended to be another fifteen minutes to half hour or so longer (yes, longer) and the pace feels wrong in the middle (prior to Wayne taking back up the Batman mantle) as a result.

5) I get the impression a lot of people will twig to the film's 99% styled rhetoric and flourish. But, since Bane explains it, that is "hope", and hope he imagines is the recipe for despair. Bane isn't there to throw a revolution. He's there to burn the city to the ground, every soul, every one, everywhere. Period. The "revolution", the destruction of the powerful and the throwing open the doors to desperation to everyone, even the powerful, is a way of controlling the masses in order to keep them off of what he's actually doing there. I get the impression that people focusing on the disparity between his sort of nihilistic messiah messaging and the support of the people aren't noticing that a) they clearly explain there's no work for the desperate in Gotham and that some kid turns up dead in the sewers very early on in his search for work. This is, to some extent, part of what motivated the OWS crowd to begin with, the lack of promising future or present and in the Batman universe, "tasting desperate" is a valuable turn on the life of a criminal actor (from both the first movie investigating Batman's origins and Catwoman's origins in this film). Second, Bane has a fucking bomb that could kill them and the only way out (a false one) that he offers appears to be through him. If he wants to have a go at the rich and powerful of Gotham, they may as well get in on it. If he wants to liberate violent criminals because they were treated unjustly by an unjust law passed to idolize someone he tells them is a false idol, I don't know that everyone will just go along with it, but there's room for people who might see that "war on terror" as having been carried too far (Nolan likes the war on terror metaphors). (As a further problem, Bane himself was picked as a villain over two years ago, when lots of people were clamoring for the Riddler. Any knowledge of Bane's MO from the comics would show this isn't far out of character for him to mobilize the "mob" to run Batman down to the ground). The closest 99%/OWS representation in messaging is Catwoman (not Bane or Batman), and given how her plot arcs, I don't think it would be easy to view the film as though it's some sort of positively endorsed message for anarcho-syndicalism or some such.

5a) One other note on the film, it very clearly explores the "noble lie" motif from Plato-Aristotle. And it explodes it.

6) Somewhat jarringly, there was an assault by a gunman in Colorado at one of the midnight showings (which I attended out here in Ohio). In one way, I'm not surprised. There's no better way to try to get yourself some attention as a lone-gunman along the Columbine model than to do it at somewhere or some event that is spectacular and where people aren't likely to be fighting back, and also where there are children. A school or a movie theatre or maybe a mall or a public park/pool. I'm somewhat amazed that the "actual" terrorists haven't figured this one out, but I'm not going to complain that they haven't. There are a lot of conflicting details out there still and not much is yet known about the motives of the suspect in custody (he doesn't appear to be an Brevik type, but we don't know yet). So I will refrain from speculation.

As my own reactions, I expect some movie theaters will go overboard on security checks. This is stupid. The guy here kicked in an emergency exit from witness accounts. He wouldn't have gone through any security to do that and neither would anyone else wanting to strike such an event. Human beings being dumb will respond to security theater rather than any actual improvement in safety, but that doesn't mean I have to like the repression of basic decency and liberty. The correct response here is to recognize that millions of people go to movies and other public places every day where they could be shot at by gunmen, and never are. That we live in a pretty safe and secure place most of the time for most of us. Maybe there's some legal change to mental disorder purchases that will come down the pike. Maybe so, but I'm not convinced that will help us either. Most "crazy" people are not violently so, and usually such legislation is fairly blanketed by design instead of targeted intelligently. In addition, people's mental states can change often dramatically over the course of many months or years owning such weapons. Others will try perhaps to tie this violence into their own pet political causes (violent video games and movies for some, anti-drugs for some, anti-war messages for others, "pro"-evangelical messages for still others it seems). I admire the human capacity for reasoning and constructing arguments, but I can't say I admire every place that we do it or every place that reason can carry us, and keep us, and constructing an ideology here as though this is a cause of a unique design with a simple solution is nonsense.

That may include my own responses of course.

One other thing that I think we have to start acknowledging is that while people can become monsters, we have often made them that way along they way. WE bear some of the responsibility. We human beings can become cruel and inhuman and dismissive to others. Without becoming violent we are oppressive and repressive to the development and well-being of our fellow man. Occasionally that means that people who become outcasts by not belonging, by not trying to fit in or by not doing so as well as everyone else can, fall through the cracks. And falling through the cracks here is not a friendly place to be. Everyone has these moments and flashes of anguish and rage. But imagine an entire world eventually composed of it, and suppressing and controlling it over time, trying to gain some direction from what consumes you. Not everyone will direct it somewhere nice and productive unfortunately. None of that is to justify what happens; it does not one thing to explain it away to offer an explanation. I ask only that we try to understand where violence comes from and just how hard it can be to tow a line of civility, and that some amount of conflict, some amount of rebellion, and some amount of grim determination is a world where violence is possible. I think we must hope that it need not be inevitable.

These are really first world problems. We have the luxury as individuals not to have to depend greatly and directly and personally on others for our lives in food and protection from death and mayhem. We unfortunately have not progressed beyond petty tribalism and exclusivity as a means of encouraging those groups of necessity. Somewhere in between those gaps is the problem for us, where some people still do have to depend greatly on necessity (poverty, prisons, high crime zones), while others no longer do but still must struggle to find a place to fit in, to be loved, to express love, and so on.

In being something of a student of history, it occurs to me that always history is about being able to assume perspectives different from our own and try to see the world as it was, as the people living through it must have seen it. We're not really very good at this. Nobody thinks they'd be a Nazi or be involved in chattel slavery as an owner or overseer of some kind. Or that they would be someone shooting up random civilians in a terrifying incident. Fortunately this last event is rare but that makes it only harder to see how it happens. The crucial element is that we are not very good at understanding others, especially others who are different from how we imagine ourselves to be, from years of distinct experience, genetic distinguishing features, and so on. Understanding does not and can not justify tragedy and horror but it might help us to prevent the next one.

If we understand "how" maybe that makes it easier to come up with our own "why".

17 July 2012

Random NBA thoughts

1) Kobe is crazy. I don't see any particular way the 92 Team loses to this one or the 08 team. There's about 4 guys on this team that would have a shot to make the 92 team (Kobe, LeBron, Durant, and Paul), over Laettner, Bird (retired and injured), and probably Malone or Mullin in my mind. Howard might have a case over Ewing also if he was healthy and Rose or Wade would be other options if healthy over Drexler and Magic (couldn't guard anyone and was, like Bird there because of the name more than his remaining skill level). Main reason I'd take the 92 team, other than the obvious MJ in prime feature, plus Pippen, Robinson, Barkley, Stockton in primes, was that they're a way better passing team at every position. Ewing might have been the worst passer on that team. In an international or all-star game, that matters. Hell, it matters at the NBA title level. Teams that can move the ball and run plays or set each other up play unselfishly and conserve energy for defence. Which speaking of which.. that team would also look better given that they had two centers who could run the floor and were all-NBA defence (Ewing/Robinson), two defensive player of year perimeter guys (Jordan/Pippen), a decent defensive point guard (Stockton, who did after all get the steals record too by the way), and a number of guys at every other position who could rebound and jump passing lanes. Again, Mullin, Malone, injured Bird and Laettner are the only liabilities there (and three of those guys could get after the glass at least). So yeah, count me in the consensus that says that wouldn't be all that close of a game.

2) I'm not sure why NY is so annoyed about the Lin signing. I do think they could have done some way to swallow the poison pill deal that Houston offered (3rd year) by using it as an expiring contract deal to trade off to some other team (or to free up cap space themselves down the road), and it is NY after all. But it was probably way overpaying his actual performance on court versus merchandise value and possible new fan base. I'd be a little concerned about losing both him and Fields and replacing that with an aging Kidd/Camby combo and another point guard that can't shoot (Felton). They had better start hoping that Amare remembers how to play in the offseason up there.

3) Boston way overpaid Jeff Green. That one draws an eyebrow from me. Getting Sullinger, and predictably noting that he can't get his shot off inside in summer league games, also odd. He does however dominate the glass and can sink a jump shot, and has some inside moves. So it's not a bad fall. Terry helps cushion the Ray Allen FU move on the way out (taking less money). I can't say I'd blame him though.

4) Kind of interested to see if Brandon Roy has anything in the tank left. Medical tech seems to be advancing such that he should be able to wrangle a couple of productive years and he does fill the biggest void in the Wolves roster (Wesley Johnson? Wayne Ellington?). They could be pretty good over the next couple years with their young core (like OKC did, getting better every year). A core of Love, Rubio, Williams, Pekovic, and Roy, plus some role players (Budinger or Barea), doesn't sound too bad. Add a couple draft picks and/or signing Batum and it starts to look interesting.

5) Not sure what the Clippers were doing signing Jamal Crawford. I think there's a good reason he parlayed a sixth man award into only a one year contract last year after all. Predictably, Blake tears up his knee during Olympic duty. I suppose Crawford is a slight upgrade over Nick Young, but that's not saying much.

6) Houston is fucked if they don't get Dwight. Scola, Lowry, Budinger, Dalembert, probably Lee also, all gone. They did get Royce White and Terrence Jones in the draft, and still, for now, have Kevin Martin (efficient all offense player unlike inefficient all offense Monte Ellis), and a couple other decent roles but that's a 30 win team without Howard.

7) I don't think the Lakers are title contenders with Nash. They still can't guard the point, and Kobe needs the ball to score. Or wants it at least, when it should be going more to Gasol or Bynum.  Chemistry is not that easy to do. If they get Howard, then they start to look more interesting.

8) Golden State can stay healthy they might be about to make some noise this coming year. Starting five looks interesting. Bogut, Curry, Barnes (a big maybe there), Klay Thompson, and David Lee. If they keep Rush and Jack, that's not bad off the bench. It's not a 50 win team, but it might slip into the playoffs the way Utah did this year.

9) Phoenix, or Portland didn't do much to add value and are basically blowing up their teams. I'd expect them of them to drop like a rock. Ditto Atlanta and Orlando.

10) Brooklyn should actually be good but not that good. Joe Johnson is perennially overrated as a star quality player. Dumping a few of their bad contracts wasn't a bad move (Morrow especially), but that won't make them into a contender versus Boston, Chicago or Miami in the conference, much less OKC and co out West.

11) Denver and Philly did very well in a shorter condensed schedule by virtue of having deep benches. I'm not sure that Philly will still be around, depending on if they trade Iggy or not (they're already down Lou Williams and Brand and Kwame Brown is not a name one wants to see on the "additions" ledger, neither is Nick Young), and Denver has some skilled players but I'm not sure how they'd move up with what they've got.

12) Going out on a limb, Charlotte and New Orleans will not be as bad as last year. New Orleans may have a very outside shot at the playoffs, though that depends on Davis being as very good as advertised, Rivers not being as terrible as many project, Gordon being Gordon, and chemistry working to form. Charlotte will just not be the dregs of the league history repeated.

13) Dallas and San Antonio being a year older will not amount to much improvement. Dallas has a shot to miss the playoffs with this team. All things considered, they did have some decent value pickups. Collison, Kaman, and Crowder for example. But none of those are jumping out as outstanding moves. San Antonio has advantages of retaining the team chemistry from a year ago and a couple of skilled younger guys (Parker is sort of younger even though he's been around forever, and Splitter and Leonard are very good).

Quiz it

There's a political quiz here: http://www.isidewith.com
Which appears designed to deal with the problems routinely found in an uninformed electorate voting wildly upon issues that they may or may not care much about for candidates that may or may not actually share those views or act to carry them into law.

I went through and took this. For the most part, I find that the questions lack enough sophistication for more nuanced positions, more radical positions, or more... unique positions.  I have some quibbles with the scoring system as well, but not many. They seemed for instance to properly identify Obama as a drug warrior rather than as a drug-reformer or drug-decriminalisation advocate as is sometimes claimed, nor as an anti-war candidate as was commonly believed during the 2008 election (see Afghanistan), and there doesn't appear to be much "socialist!" idiocy. I also quibble with the fact that there isn't much dealing with the Iraq war or the Libya incursion, at least directly, for foreign policy.

Going through, these would be my more specific responses. (And short version, they didn't get into monetary policy enough for me to greatly distinguish Ron Paul from Gary Johnson and that abortion and immigration had to be relied upon. But both of them crushed everyone else. This should not be surprising)

Foreign policy

Should the US intervene in the affairs of other countries? I picked the "only if it serves national security", which to me read as the proximate statement for "realist concerns benefiting a strong or vital national interest only". That does not include "humanitarian" missions employing military force use for the most part and definitely doesn't include regime changing occupation missions.

How should the US deal with Iran? I went with "Maintain diplomacy while discouraging the use of nuclear weapons" My actual position would be something akin to "continue to attempt to slow development if possible or practicable of actual weapons, and use international law/treaty and diplomacy to enforce non-proliferation rather than military force". I'm not sure what "discouraging the use of nuclear weapons" means in practical terms but it could mean providing a nuclear deterrent against their use (M.A.D style?), or it could mean arms reduction treaties to limit the scope and size of any possible nuclear wars along with disarmament or IAEA/NPT compliance for other countries. Given that there's a lot of preposterous fear mongering relating to Iran's technical capacities for missile launches and conventional payloads (both of which might at best represent threats to Israeli security, for which they are amply supplied to defend or counter by themselves, and neither of which represents any severe danger to American security), I'm guessing that only our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have prevented outright warfare by diminishing the public appetite for additional conflict.   

Should the US maintain a presence at the UN? "Yes". Generally speaking diplomacy is cheap, even if it doesn't always provide gains to us, and as a "great power", we have veto powers to prevent things that we perceive as against our interests from happening through diplomatic means (much as China and Russia do). As a realist, while I recognize the international community won't always function according to legal dictums, it serves our interests to a) appear to go through the motions such that when rare actual forceful actions are necessary, as they might appear to be motivated by more noble concerns and thus shared in by others (obviously this has not been the case in our choice of recent actions), b) to use the existing structure to preserve or achieve power by avoiding tedious and expensive wastes of conflict for our blood and treasure by securing interests in other ways, and c) to provide diplomatic channels to secure and demonstrate alliances of convenience to hegemonic power or to cushion the decrease in relative power to a multi-polar world.

Should the US end the war in Afghanistan? "Yes". I also went with a stronger constraint on the War Powers Act, such that wars should be declared more affirmatively by Congress and only carried out by the CINC powers of the Presidency. Drone warfare should be included in this, even if it has more vague powers of declaration associated with it. The idea that "military leaders" should be allowed to determine whether any political or national interests are served by continuing a conflict is totally ludicrous to me. They can tell us whether those missions of vital interest could be carried out, what resources are required, and engage in military discipline and strategic planning with some latitude, but deciding whether or not to stay in a country for us? Stupid.

Should the US continue to support Israel? "No". In so far as we should provide aid if they were attacked and invaded (foolishly) by a rival country, fine. I can see that argument, much as we might if Western Europe or Australia were attacked by some (largely fictional) enemy. Those scenarios are extremely unlikely given the relative power of any allied military to their enemies for possible invasion (even South Korea could win against North Korea rather handily, just the terribly high cost of civilian infrastructure and population in the South prevents such a conflict). I can see arguments for sharing intelligence on terrorist networks for global purposes also. In so far as we should unilaterally or even tacitly support whatever Israeli policies are internally, or projected into Palestinian occupied territories, no.

How should the US handle the genocide in Sudan? "Don't get involved". I'm not sure how our involvement would or could resolve the situation. See Kosovo or Somalia for how interventions don't work out. Or Libya for a more recent example. Sudan also sounds like less of a regime matter and more a local tribal conflict that the regime has exploited and expanded, and which would require a very considerable investment on our part to dial down successfully (essentially a large occupation/peacekeeping force positioned for an indefinite period and effectively supporting one or more of the rival factions). To boot, the US does not have substantial diplomatic ties with the current Sudanese government on which to carry any influential weight as it is in the Chinese or Russian sphere of influence. Official US policy should be non-intervention. Private citizens may lobby the Chinese if they want as was done with a modest success in the South Sudan situation.

Should the United States end its trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba? Generally I am opposed to embargoes on any country. The type of country which a trade ban or boycott or other restriction is likely to have useful effect is likely to be the sort of country we are unlikely to use such things against (that is: a country with a democratically accountable government and a large developed economy). There are types of embargoes that may more penalise the intended targets (such as by trying to track and freeze the assets of corrupt regime leaders when moved to foreign and aligned countries, which limits opportunities for investment and growth of those private assets), but wide scale embargoes accomplish little but to impoverish, even starve or otherwise endanger, the general public of a rival country at the expense of providing a cheap propaganda point on which a dictatorial leader may rally support against our initiatives. For no probable gain on our behalf. Eg, they are counter-productive. It is sensible that US interests may be served by limiting military technology or friendly espionage with rival countries, but this is not what the trade and travel bans intend. Trade and travel restrictions should really only be used during a time of active war and conflict.


Should children of illegal immigrants be granted citizenship? I went with "yes if they were born here." In general I see citizenship as distinct from open borders policies for residency or trade and labour. People should want to definitively associate themselves as "Americans" to participate fully and for civic purposes in our society as citizens. But in so far as it would then be necessary to make distinctions from current American citizens being born here instead of just getting citizenship, I don't see any reason to make such a distinction to shut off immigrants receiving citizenship at birth in the same way that other residents do.

Should illegal immigrants be given access to paid health care? "Yes". Medical ethics demands this to some extent. I am not convinced that this is a substantial driver of costs (The "ER use" mythology is very powerful). Essentially I think the same arguments against immigrants being denied care would have to apply to any poor person or anyone who lacked insurance, etc.

Should illegal immigrants working in the US be granted temporary amnesty? Again, yes. I would prefer some combination of the following: auctioning off work visas to businesses rather than requiring businesses to prove need, increased allowances for entrance through this means, and especially a simplified means of accessing citizenship rather than extension hoop jumps we use now. We are generally enriched by immigration for cultural and economic reasons and I don't see a reason to reduce this enrichment by worrying about boot millions of people out of country.


Do you support the Theory of Evolution? I suppose this is a proxy for other social conservative value assessments. (Eg, a way to provide additional emphasis to anti-gay or anti-abortion stances). Otherwise, I'm not sure what filtering value this question serves. Being anti-rational or anti-humanist isn't exactly an unpopular political view in the US, and is actually something that takes the format of being influenced by other political ideological views. Liberals end up being more likely to take views opposing GM foods or vaccinations or nuclear power with more seriousness because they hold anti-corporate views just as social conservatives take creationism and abortion and homosexuality with more seriousness than the science would indicate is deserved because of faith-based views. 

Should the federal government fund stem cell research? If the grant proposals involved in such research are very promising, I suppose a case can be made here. I'm skeptical that this is actually the case for much stem cell research that the government needs to be encouraging it in some special way that the private market doesn't have incentives to do already. The question here also simplifies the disparity between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells; which is where most social conservatives seem concerned, though for my purposes, it doesn't matter. I'm opposed to subsidizing this sort of thing not on moral grounds but on economic grounds. There are more promising or more directly practical lines of medical and genetic research available to lavish with public monies.

Should the US increase our space exploration efforts and budget? Other than satellite surveillance or communications, or things like GPS, I'm not convinced the US requires a public space programme. If private enterprise wants to do space tourism, exploration, or maintain orbital platforms for their own use, I'm fine with that. I don't think this should be a NASA centric effort and there are other ways to exhort Americans to take up the cause of science and mathematics in ways that they presently do not.

Health Care

Should marijuana be legalised in the US? Yes. With the additional requirements of a) a regulated open market, including possible medical uses for anyone and recreational use for adults and b) the reduction or elimination of criminal penalties for nonviolent offences associated with marijuana (or other narcotic substances).

Do you support the PPACA (Obamacare)? There really wasn't a good response here. My preference is a universal catastrophic coverage system provided by the government in exchange for taxes or mandated medical savings, basic subsidies for people who are poor or lower income or medically disabled, and then open it up from there to anyone who wants first dollar coverage or augmented elements to the private insurance market (which should be cheaper to provide if catastrophic care is augmented with government payments). This idea is some version of Singapore, Wyden-Bennett, and to some extent the Ryan plan. This also feeds into the next question...

Should we expand or dismantle our medicare programme? To which I would reply dismantle. It is an unsustainable economic model in the American polity to ask poorer working young people to pay for the health care of richer retired old people. Asking working people to pay for health care for poor people might be a justifiable system. Asking them to pay for the elderly on the basis of an arbitrary retirement age being reached is stupid. This idea should be phased out, starting with means testing benefits, then a general overhaul of medical insurance structure such that people when they retire ought to have some amount of funding available for their own needs privately held (eg, mandated HSA style accounts). This is but one example of vast transfers of wealth from poor to rich within our system (Home mortgage interest deductions are another), an idea which is both socially unjust and economically unsustainable.

Domestic policies 

Do you support increased gun control? I am opposed on some general liberties and Constitutional rights, and am agnostic about the efficacy of gun control setups that have been used. Some were genuinely bad and counterproductive, others seem to have at least "noble" goals and had minimal harm on the public they were enforced against (assault weapon bans for instance or constraints on ex-felons or mentally ill). I am however not all that fond of a social mindset that sees guns in the home and on one's person as essential. I just don't see that there are many sensible legal ways to restrict this attitude. Other than to make it less feel less essential (eg, make people aware that crime is rare, for instance, for most of us). So "no".

Do you support the Patriot Act? There are probably some provisions in there that were or are still of actual utility (some position of unified intelligence and intelligence sharing between various bureaus for example, if they were ever to use such a system might be beneficial. They do not appear to have done so very efficiently). But most of it read like a laundry list of law enforcement wants that exceeded Constitutional mandates, and offered little actual anti-terrorism effects. The general effect of security theater policies, especially in the formation of the Homeland Security cabinet position and the arbitrary methods of the TSA, does little to inspire confidence that other government provisions were of any necessity either. So "no".

Should the government regulate the internet to deter online piracy? Generally no. I am opposed to stronger intellectual property rights defenses, and support weakening of public domain laws and patent trolling powers. I do think that piracy of movies and music, along with video games, is a legitimate concern for those industries, but it does not appear to cause sufficient harm to their abilities to make creative works, distribute them, and to profit by them. Indeed, piracy itself seems heavily related to either a) distorted price controlled markets or b) items of considerable popularity. That is: something being pirated a lot ought to tell us that something is really, really popular already and is probably already making a lot of money. It would better if people weren't pirating it.. but the music industry finally seems to have twigged to resolving a partial solution by using digital distribution methods like itunes, and movies or TV shows will eventually concede to things like Netflix streaming or ala carte cable subscriptions as a method of generating revenues for consumption of their works. These methods do not eliminate piracy, but seem to alleviate it by offering ways to buy into the market and participate as a consumer without the old methods of having to consume entire albums, or to purchase on reserve copies of DVD/Blue-Rays for movies and shows that we may enjoy but probably don't want to own.

Are you in favor of decriminalising all drugs? Yes. As with marijuana, the problem is generally medical, not legal. It should be treated as such rather than as locking up addicts and providers with no other basis. I am skeptical that mere possession ought to be a basis for sending people off to drug treatment centres either (seems like a wasteful lack of filtering), but this is quite a bit better than locking such people up in prisons and jails and implementing invasive and aggressive police tactics to deal with non-violent criminals. If drug dealers are killing each other or their violence and aggression challenges a neighbourhood for other reasons, we should naturally be concerned. But just selling and possessing and using things ought not to automatically concern us.

Should we limit federal funds to public schools that do not meet performance standards? If we had some means of school choice, I should think this would be handled by parents and markets without need for federal decisions for implementing standards based testing that is probably counterproductive to providing a broad based general k-12 education and lacks effective enforcement methods at this time. I see several problems with this: one the current methods are ineffective, two, it's difficult to present what federal standards ought to be, or a basis for why they should override local or state standards, and three, who monitors these standards and how is a punitive method by reducing funds to a trapped school district a means of effectively improving the quality of education available to students and parents in that neighbourhood or city?

Do you support affirmative action programmes? "No, but we should offer social programmes to address poverty regardless of race or ethnicity". I see this as far more useful than automatic assistance to ethnic minorities. Given that there are disproportionately poor minorities, poverty based assistance would still provide substantial racial disparity in public benefits, without assisting people who have limited need of our public aid. The "sin of slavery" is an important historical reference point, but it should be possible to redress it by alleviating poverty and opportunity inequalities in occupation and education for all people.

Environmental issues

Is Global warming a threat to the environment? Yes. But I'm not sure what government plans would do much to help with it. The US already is among the largest reducers of CO2 reduction in the developed world for example by way of reducing CO2 intensity in our economy. Without much in the way of direct intervention and in spite of still substantial government largess for fossil fuel production (coal and oil) and use (highway subsidies rather than congestion pricing). There are existing government policies that should be abolished that may be exacerbating the problem as a result rather than a pressing need for additional government policy. A carbon tax or congestion pricing or gasoline tax would be probably sufficient if more action is necessary after those actions are taken (in exchange for reductions in other taxes at the federal or local level). A greater emphasis on densification rather than current policy favoring suburban settlement would also help (ideally we would do little to encourage either. Better schools and lawns provide incentives to live in the burbs, while access to culture, "public" transit, and other creative class benefits should provide incentives to live in cities).

Should we expand our offshore drilling? Generally speaking we should stop promoting it with additional support in the form of subsidies but other than basic regulation of environmental damage, I'm not sure we should be preventing it either. Without government support, it's possible these would still be economically useful to energy companies, but I'm not concerned if that were to be the case or not. The government should neither support nor oppose much offshore drilling.

Economic issues

Should the government raise the federal minimum wage? No, the federal government should abolish federal min wage standards altogether. These have the effect of depressing low skilled employment. Competition among such jobs would ensure that wages would not be "too low". What would be of greater importance is a general welfare reform that takes on the format of a universal basic income or negative income tax, such that people would receive transfer payments in cash rather than most in-kind forms of assistance for housing, food, and to some extent health care, etc. This would remove some of the inefficiencies in the design of these programmes such that they would not "phase out" when people cross income thresholds and allow people to earn additional income without fear of losing essential public benefits. 

Should Congress raise the debt ceiling? Yes. My preference is for Congress to reign in spending of all kinds and conduct an extensive tax reform. Since it won't do those things, I would prefer we not default on debts. Any ideas that we can cut spending without touching defence, and entitlements are absurd as is most "balanced budget amendment" talk. This is pandering rather than solutions. That money is already effectively spent and accounts for the overwhelming percentage of our expenses.

Should the US have bailed out the major banks during the financial crisis of 2008? Not as such. What should have been done was a NGDP target, or at least an inflation target that the Fed actually tried to hit, combined with a negative interest rate on reserves. This might have meant that some big banks would fail, or be broken up, but it would have discouraged hording of money by large institutions of all kinds (regular corporations for instance) at a time when the economy required liquidity and a higher velocity of money. Simply giving money to businesses that made very poor decisions does acknowledge some amount of government complicity in those decisions (eg, that they were encouraged to make them), but it doesn't do much to resolve the underlying problem that they were in fact poorly run institutions that made stupid decisions.

Do you agree with President Obama's 2009 stimulus plan? They probably should have provided more specifics here, but in general the answer was no. Things like unemployment compensation to some reasonable extent are uncontroversial in my view. And the sort of ad hoc manner that states would balance budgets by slashing payrolls in police or teaching would not be carried out in the most effective manner (by firing and retiring ineffective or abusive members of those institutions for example; partly because the methods of dismissing public employees are already fraught with legal complexity). But infrastructure spending is by now fraught with all manner of complicating and competing regulation fights that make it inefficient stimulus and to boot wasn't in most cases all that well designed to get projects of necessity off the ground. An ideal infrastructure stimulus programme involving infrastructure could have been to improve and maintain the already existing infrastructure rather than to supply incentives to produce more.  Of an often dubious utility. This would have had the advantages of more immediately providing work to people in a heavily displaced economic sector and providing some benefits in a more functional road network, efficient electrical grid, or updated water or sewer lines, some of which date to the 19th century, and so on without the need for boondoggle projects in high speed rail or subsidized clean energy.

Should the federal government subsidize farmers?
Nope. Next question.

Should we keep or dismantle our Social Security programme? I think this can function as a mandatory retirement savings system if reformed. It is less economically insane than medicare for example that old people should draw an income in their retirement than that we should then also provide medical care for all such people. I am however very skeptical that it should be monopolized and run by the government to the exclusion of other options (in the same way that I do not think a monopoly on schools is satisfying to the public externality of providing a quality education). Some variety of asset distribution or private control would be preferred here. Arguments like "look what happened to the stock market" do not concern me much here. In general that bashed the public's retirement assets because people who are retired shouldn't have very much money left in stock anyway and the problem was financial illiteracy and complexity of financial instruments. That is a separate if related issue but one which isn't as easily resolved as the relative freedom to do with money as we see fit money which is designated to be our own at a later date. Note: that could include investment in public bonds or allowing the government to manage the money in exchange for a possibly lower return on investment.

Do you believe the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 should be extended? They should really also be called the Bush tax cuts of 2010 and, probably 2012. But okay. The answer is I don't care about the Bush tax cuts one way or the other. My real concern with the tax code is that it should be simplified and greatly reformed. A general tax structure in my ideal world would include any or all of the following:
A huge reduction or elimination in all federal corporate taxation combined with both
A relative increase in the rate of capital gains and dividend earnings taxation to be closer to that of regular wage income (retaining the same sort of progressivity, and thus ending the private equity trader exclusions of carried interest also and the absurd manner in which middle class stock earnings can be taxed at regular rates while actual investment income is not)
And elimination of most forms of corporate welfare

An overall shift toward consumption taxation, possibly with a graduated effect from earnings potential (again, including capital gains type earnings) and income excluded from taxation for basic needs. This might include a VAT, carbon or gasoline taxes, other excise taxation (alcohol, narcotics, expensive first dollar health care insurance, etc). It could also included a heavily modified (less regressive scale) version of the Fair Tax proposals generally replacing income taxation of any kind.

Abolition of many tax exclusions like home mortgage deductions combined with a roughly flatter and lower overall tax rate on the increased base of money available to be taxed (this is essentially what was done during the Reagan years but not during the Bush years and also during the Kennedy and Coolidge administrations). 

No tax proposal is going to actually abolish the IRS. A bureau will exist to enforce tax laws and collect revenues. It might be smaller, and it might have very different mandates to carry out, perhaps against different sectors of the economy than the manner of taxing income. But the tax men are still going to exist. Sorry to disappoint.

Social issues.

Should abortion be outlawed in the US? No. I am persuaded that varieties of birth control access (making it OTC for example would help in addition to subsidies or cash transfers for the poor), more comprehensive sex ed, streamlined adoption methods, and other social services could actually help achieve the purported goal of reducing the likelihood and frequency of abortions. Bans would also reduce these but at the cost of increasing risks to women's health through illegal markets for provision of abortion and decreased ability to carry out medically necessary abortive procedures for the preservation of a woman's life as well as carrying enforcement costs, probably through invasive and insensitive police tactics made necessary to insure things like miscarriages are not actually abortions, etc. If the goal is actually to reduce abortions, there are better ways than by imposing enormous limitations on the liberty of women to conduct their health and sexuality (with no such restrictions imposed upon men), both for personal liberty and economic reasons I oppose bans even before entering into other moral arguments. There I favour allowing people to make complicated moral decisions themselves without fear of penalty so long as the harms committed to other human beings are limited. I am further persuaded that there is little moral certainty or clarity  that fetal and embryonic development is a "person" endowed with unalienable rights and much scientific evidence to suggest otherwise through the persistence of pregnancy difficulties in other formats, like miscarriages and failures to implant fertilized embryos in the uterine walls, to suggest that nearly any time frame of "person" prior to birth is inherently arbitrary. Positions of viability are possibly instructive as providing points of limitation and restrictive access, but not total bans.

Should gay marriage be allowed in the US?  Yes. Federal policy should be amended to provide federal legal benefits in accordance with state laws and licensing at the very least. It is also possible that federal policy should need to be amended under equal protection clauses in the 14th amendment such that ALL states would need to legalise such arrangements but I am content that demographic change on this issue will suffice to provide it in the near future to enough US residents and citizens as to make it universally approved.

Should the government require health insurance companies to provide free birth control? In general I oppose the government mandating what insurers must provide. I think the government's role here would be to provide sound scientific or transparent evidence that provision of particular methods, medications, etc is medically sound and reasonably cost effective such that insurers ought to do this. But I don't see why, say, a woman in her 50s should be receiving an insurance plan that automatically covers birth control (maybe there's some medical reasons, but it wouldn't be what we traditionally associate with the drugs and devices) simply because the government has decided that insurance companies need to provide it. I also disagree with first dollar insurance for health care more broadly anyway and think of things that are usually only modestly expensive and regular expenses (check-ups, birth control, etc) to be things that we ought to simply budget for yearly rather than to expect anyone else to pay for us. It ought to be reasonable socially or culturally to expect men and women to share the costs of provision while in a regular sexual relationship also. As an additional step, birth control of many varieties could be made OTC, which would render it cheaper and more accessible to millions of women, men, and their families or significant or occasional others by eliminating a largely extraneous step of seeing a doctor to obtain it. Women with specific and significant health risks could be filtered out by pharmacists issuing the drugs, prior consultations with doctors,etc (and the primary risks of note are "do you smoke?") without imposing costs on the vast majority of the population.

Where this became an issue politically was not mentioned in the question. The problem is that many Americans receive their insurance through their employers and employers then get to exercise their own moralising impulses upon their employees types of plans. I do not see a basis for preventing people from opting out of mandates of this kind (as opposed to more general mandates for health care provision of any kind), nor for preventing them from accessing types of care and coverage that they find perfectly acceptable when they work with or for people who do not feel likewise. The problem is more the employer provision in my view here and less the mandates.