Wednesday, March 31, 2010

PBS news hour presumes everyone has an unlimited right to reproduction

Today's PBS news hour--arguably the most objective of our daily news programs--fell far short of that ideal. It devoted a lengthy segment on Haitian relief, without once mentioning the fact that Haiti's biggest problem isn't earthquake damage but overpopulation.

This rendered the entire discussion academic--as futile as pouring gallons of water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom.

They never discuss overpopulation because it's uncomfortable, but this glaring omission undercuts PBS's claim to be the news program of record.

Then, in the same show, they did another long segment on efforts to preserve the life of pregnant women and their fetuses during childbirth in Peru. Again, not one word about any plan to compensate for all these additional people showing up in the population.

The underlying principle is that everyone has a God-given right to reproduce without limits, no matter the consequences to their families, their country, the environment, the future.

It's such a right it's not even open to discussion.

Of course every single other news outlet does the same. I'd just hoped PBS could rise above that.

It can't.

Big Government

Big business wants you to fear and despise big government.

Big business has spent at least forty years sponsoring relentless, big-budget campaigning on behalf of this idea.

The goal is to get voters to support stripping every every last smidgen of consumer protection from government, either through changing the laws or killing the budget for enforcement--preferably both.

A second goal is to get government to outsource as much as possible to for-profit enterprises.

The philosophical goal is to get people to believe that the highest motivation for human behavior is the desire for profit.

What big business doesn't want you notice is that the goal of big business is to replace free market capitalism with monopoly/crony capitalism.

And people believe the myth of business efficiency in face of so much evidence to the contrary.

For example: General Motors built the NUMMI plant in Fremont California as a collaboration with Toyota, so GM could learn to build cars the Toyota way. And GM did learn. The problem is that it took GM thirty years to learn, at which point it was bankrupt.

Another small example: at one large corporation I worked for, buying PCs was the responsibility of one department; using and maintaining them was the responsibility of another. So of course the depart in charge of buying them bought crap computers that couldn't do the job and weren't reliable. Pervasive bureacratic illogic like this reduced company profits and competitiveness in many areas.

And the profit motive is often false anyway. Corporate compensation experts will tell you that executives demand gigantic salaries not because they can even spend that much money--but because they're competing with other CEOs to see whose male organ is the biggest, and it's measured by the size of their salaries. This is less profit-seeking than it is hubris.

The next election

The next election will pit the Republican tribe against the Democratic Party.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Are Republican politicians' speeches responsiblre for followers' violence?

Whenever I mention Republican misdeeds to my Republican spouse, I get "well, Democrats do it too, and just as much or more."

Democrats say the same thing when the shoe's on the other foot, of course.

Neither is a legal defense, folks. If my next door neighbor is a murderer (true, by the way, a few years ago), that doesn't give me a hunting license. I shouldn't have to say this, but both sides use this eight year olds' defense so often I felt the need to mention it.

So here I'm just going to talk about recent Republican behavior. I'll worry about the Democrats' comparable sins when they're out of power again.

It's not enough to read the First Amendment, because over the centuries the Supremes and Congress have sculpted it a lot. A whole lot.

From my readings it seems to boil down to this: political speech is the freest speech of all, with the strictest limitations on legal action. It goes far beyond "yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater." I get the impression you'd have to be calling for the president to be assassinated at a rally where he was present, and leading the charge, for it to be illegal.

So while it's technically slander to call a Congressman a "baby killer," for example, it's regarded as permissible hyperbole.

My guess is that nothing the Republican leadership/pundits/media hosts are saying is illegal. Or very little, at least.

But there's a second question: does it in fact, legal or not, incite illegal action? This is a sociological question. I think it's obvious that it can.

For example, Fundamentalist Muslim religious authorities have issued fatwas inviting good Muslims to murder novelists they don't like. They've also issued elaborate justifications for suicide murder of innocent civilians, starting with the fine-sounding phrase "it is permissible to..."

Or I believe it has been found not permissible for antiabortionist websites to publish abortion providers' names/home addresses/photos of family members/addresses of schools the children attend, along with check marks through the faces of ones who have been murdered. So it is possible to go over the line legally.

The sociological argument is that morality is social more than individual. If someone hears the government delegitimized, targeted politicians or other demonized, sees this echoed across numerous websites and media outlets--and all of this reinforced by the highest officials of one's party--that sets the stage for vigilantism, and for the vigilante feeling that his actions are actually moral.

Look at the racial lynchings in the South that went on for over half a century. Families would go on picnic outings to see Blacks strung up, even tortured to death. And the townsfolk would be downright festive about it...then go to church on Sunday and congratulate themselves on what fine Christians they were.

Anyone in business learns that the boss has to watch what he says, because his position gives his words what the Polynesians would call mana. And when the House minority leader calls passage of the healthcare reform bill that Teddy Roosevelt had called for "Armageddon," that's legal but irresponsible. Especially when one out of five Republican voters apparently believe Obama is the literal Antichrist.

So while for the average American "Armageddon" sounds like quaint exaggeration, it means something else to those one in fivers.

I conclude that the Republican leadership--not to mention their allies in the media--have been more than irresponsible. They are intentionally stirring up their masses.

I draw this conclusion not just from what they're saying, but from what the listeners are hearing. The average Democrat lives in a world of shades of gray, and is rarely a Christian fundamentalist. The Republican base is largely fervently religious, believes in Good and Evil--do you realize that the best-selling novels in America are the Left Behind series, which focus on describing how Christ and his heavenly army are going to torture Democrats (i.e. Unbelievers--and that includes members of mainstream Christian churches) to death?

You can't understand the scary implications of what the Republican leaders are saying until you hear it through the ears of their more avid followers.

Can we get Karzai to shape up? Beats me.

And if Karzai doesn't shape up...what is the "or else" part of our telling him to shape up or else?

Seems like he figures he's got us over a barrel. Can we really take our toys and go home if he doesn't mend his corrupt, autocratic ways? He thinks not.

Can we throw him under the bus by demanding a new election--saying that the last one didn't remotely meet international standards? Might be overplaying our hand. Our enemies already call him our puppet.

We could try a regional/local strategy--just ignore the "mayor of Kabul" and work with provincial bosses we think can do better. It's a lousy option, but if we can't show Karzai we have a credible Plan B it's no use shaking our finger at him. He'll just smile and nod...and continue to stuff his Swiss bank accounts with dollars (just a guess--could be Dubai or some such).

I wish today's NYTimes editorial had proposed what our Plan B could be. Seems like whichever way we turn is fraught with peril.

The editorial didn't say anything about Pakistan, India and Iran either. Pakistan is obsessed with India's influence in Afghanistan, and I never read any credible articles on what form that influence might take. Or whether we can use something about this trio of neighbors to exert leverage on Karzai.

Lastly, of course the planners of 9/11 are almost certainly in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. So as we wrestle with the mess in Afghanistan, we have to keep our eyes on the prize: Bin Ladin's head on a pike. Or, failing that, in the crosshairs of a Predator's camera the instant before a Hellfire missile shortens his day.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The path to hell is paved with good intentions, part X

There are lots of great people who are Catholics. I'm particularly impressed by the association of 59,000 nuns who work in hospitals and the Catholic hospital association, both of which defied doctrinaire America bishops to support healthcare reform.

But with apologies to such people, I think the church they serve has not served them well.

The Catholic Church has done far worse than put generations of innocent boys in the hands of criminal priests; than order its devotees to disobey American laws; than continually interfere in American elections while hanging on to its tax-exempt status.

The worst sin of this religion--committed with the best of intentions, ironically--is ecocide, caused by the Pope's opposition to all forms of population control (all forms that work, certainly).

Some facts anyone can verify through reputable sources:

1. The world's population has doubled--doubled--since 1966.

2. One billion humans can't get enough to eat and drink daily.

3. 16,000 children die every day from starvation-related causes. That's one every 5 seconds.

4. Mexico's population exploded from 20 million in 1940 to over 100 million in 2000. That's the true source of illegal immigration--not any "job magnet."

5. Haiti's population exploded from 3 million in 1950 to 10 million today (including a flood of Haitian illegals in the Dominican Republic). This has made the country far, far more vulnerable to hurricanes and earthquakes.

Not all of these are entirely the Pope's fault, of course. Islam fosters just as high a birthrate, and, like Catholicism, its huge numbers give its doctrines great leverage.

All institutions that oppose population control do so in the name of life and holy commandments. That's why it's so ironic that the product of this kindness is so much starvation and death.

And they're taking the planet with them. For example, the Haitians have chopped down 98% of their country's trees. Now every rainstorm washes more of Haiti's topsoil into the sea. Haiti's becoming a desert. A desert with 10 million mouths to feed. As goes Haiti today, so goes more countries tomorrow.

Biologists report that the world is experiencing the biggest mass extinction of species of animals and plants since the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.

That makes the Catholic Church+Islam+all other churches that oppose population control the equivalent in destructiveness to an asteroid hurtling into our atmosphere at 30,000 miles an hour, hitting our planet with the force of thousands of H-bombs--only in slo-mo, taking decades to do what the asteroid did in days.

Catholics and others dismiss accusations like this out of hand. What overpopulation, they say. We just need to move the food around better, they say. They're in denial. We're using our technology mostly to destroy the planet's ability to support us. For example, our fishing fleets are marvels of technology. They work amazingly well until the last fish is gone.

You can't bring back the dodo, the emu, the passenger pigeon. They're gone forever. You can't bring back overpumped wells after the porous aquifer collapses. You can't reverse desertification once the topsoil's gone (Greece did this over 2,000 years ago when it cut down its trees to fuel kilns; it has yet to recover). Our vaunted agricultural technology is poisoning rivers and coastal waters, exhausting the soil, depending on cloned plant species that are more and more vulnerable to different plagues.

Everything looks great to the average American, but the scientific community has been freaking out for decades, while ordinary citizens just say, like Scarlett O'Hara, "Ah'll think about it tomorrow." Or they villify anyone who disturbs their fantasy that we can do as we please, forever, without consequence. But if we don't fix this today, Nature will tomorrow.

You aren't going to like tomorrow.

Of course to the truly religious my indictment is immaterial. For them this life is an eyeblink compared to eternity. So what if their policies trash the planet? What does that matter compared to following God's commandments? This is how a love of eternity can foster indifference to life.

Some religions teach that Man has dominion over the Earth. Others, that we have Stewardship--an enormous responsibility.

The Catholic Church's leadership has opted for dominion. With so many followers, it will make all of us pay for its folly.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Public sector workers: friend or foe?

Right wing pundits claim that city, state and federal workers are robbing us, with total compensation vastly higher than those doing comparable work in the private sector.

Leftists say these workers are our brothers, and we should unite against our common foes, the greedy bosses and financiers.

So--do public sector employees make more? I looked for nonpartisan factchecking sources, and found that it looks like they do. Not as much as many right wingers claim...but definitely more. USA Today said it averaged around 20% (once you take all the perks into account). And it should be definitely less.

That was the civil service deal from time immemorial. You exchanged less pay for more security.

But no more. One local newspaper asked local cities for lists of employee pay. They all refused, even though public employee pay is a matter of public record. How could it be otherwise? But after suing them it got the lists and publishes them regularly. Your local paper should, too.

It's not an eye-opener. More of a jaw-dropper. For example, the city manager of a nearby town with a population of 75,000 makes more than the Vice President of the United States. And the grift goes all the down to the secretaries and street sweepers. And managers' compensation is often tied to that of the employees--yet those are the ones negotiating workers' salaries. Plus compensation is often required to be determined in comparison with other cities' workers' wages, explicitly excluding comparable private sector compensation.

And as for the greedy bosses--yes, they're greedy, by and large. Only they aren't the bosses of these public employees.

We are.

That's a fundamental difference the public employee unions don't want you to think about. I'd love it if all of us had the compensation and job security of our public sector counterparts, but we don't. So they should have the compensation we do until or unless ours goes up.

And this isn't just a problem of pay equity. During the boom the public employee unions demanded more pay, and the cities etc. bought them off in part with lavish pension deals that didn't have to be funded right away. So they weren't. Or the cities stole the funding for immediate needs, just like Congress has been raiding the Social Security trust fund for decades.

But now the bill's coming due as city employees with the sweet deal start retiring. It's an unfunded mandate that's going to rob cities of their ability to repair their infrastructure. It drove one local city--Vallejo--into bankruptcy.

The public employees claim that those pensions are just reward for taking less money than if they'd been in the public sector. They say that this mandate is unfunded because city governments stole the pension fund money, moving it into the general fund. This is often true. But I've been looking at these lists of their pay, and at least around here city employees are getting more up front and later on as well.

Plus many are gaming the system. Their pensions are based on work they do in their last year or two, and many get so much overtime during that period that their pensions are inflated spectacularly.

And the public sector employee unions give those running for office--such as city councils--lists of demands the candidates must agree to, or the unions will campaign against them.

Thus my local city council has at least four members who are in the unions' pockets--they vote for the unions reliably. So it's hard for elected officials to go against the unions.

At the state level, here in California the prison guard union wields enormous power, and acts aggressively to deflect corrections budgets into their pockets and away from anything that smacks of rehabilitation. And of course they oppose legalizing marijuana and favor long mandatory sentences for everything.

So public sector unions warp public policy in favor of public employee financial interests as well directly with sweet compensation deals.

Your first action item is transparency--get your local paper(s) to publish city government compensation information. It's your money, after all. You're the boss, not the employee, in this case. As the boss you have a right to know what your employees make.

And if that compensation seems outrageous; if your city sits on a city employee pension time bomb; if your city's in debt and it's getting worse; if your infrastructure isn't being maintained...then you need to support city council candidates who are in the taxpayers' pockets, not the unions, not developers--not anybody but you.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In defense of Tea Party types

As people heap abuse on the Tea Party types--mostly cranky old white guys--let me say something in their defense.

The Tea Party folks think they've been shafted. Well, they have been. Wages for working stiffs have stagnated since the 1970s, while those of the corporate elites and Wall Street types have soared into low orbit.

Boomers with a high school education, decent on-the-job training and a good work ethic could support a wife at home, buy that home, buy a Chevy or a Ford, and raise a family.

And now their retirement is threatened, and their kids have worse prospects than they do.

Moreover, the society they lived in is being taken away from them. They didn't have to lock their doors. Now they do. Signs on stores were in a language they could understand. The people around them generally shared their values.

Of course all these things happened to American Indians, and liberals never stop bemoaning that. But it's happening to American Anglos now, and liberals shower contempt and namecalling on them.

How is it not OK for American Indians to have their culture taken from them, but just swell to have exactly the same thing happen to Anglo Americans? Exactly what makes it racist to love your own culture and want to preserve it?

If a million Anglo Americans moved to, say, Veracruz, and edged out the locals, and put signs only in English on their stores, liberals would decry it as cultural imperialism and argue that Mexican culture was being disrespected.

This isn't a problem for me personally, by and large. I live in Silicon Valley, one of the most multicultural places on Earth. Last Saturday we showed a couple from Belarus to San Francisco for the first time (they got here a month ago) and took them to a Burmese restaurant for dinner--their first experience with Burmese food.

Our last vacation was in Bali. I've traveled in 17 countries. I speak Spanish. I've lived in Mexico and studied at the University of Mexico summer school. I'm educated. I speak a tiny smattering of half a dozen languages. I have a degree in Sociology.

But I'm not your standard Anglo American working stiff. Why should I expect them to not go into culture shock if the demographic composition of their town is changed radically--by immigration policies that the American people never voted on and would reject if they were given the opportunity to do so?

So they're suffering economically and culturally.

Meanwhile the Democratic Party tells them they're racists if they object to their wages being driven down by competition from a flood of illegal immigrants. And then they open their ballot and it's in 15 languages to accommodate immigrants who haven't bothered to learn our common language.

And if the Anglo American is in civil service somewhere, maybe he sees a black guy with lower scores get promoted ahead of him because the white guy's great-great-great-grandfather had slaves. Or was a sharecropper whose landlord had slaves. And the Anglo American knows this has happened because the Democratic Party decided to make it so.

So our Anglo American guy turns to the Republicans. He doesn't realize that it's the Republicans who are robbing him blind, because they do their financial manipulations out of public view, while the Democrats' are out in the open.

So although the Tea Party types are completely wrong about the source of the economic situation they're in; although they're fiercely opposing the guy--our prez--who's trying to save them--and although much of what they're saying and doing is clearly racist and hateful--

We should admit that the Democrats did everything in their power to shove them into the Republicans' greedy arms, and that these Tea Party folks have gotten the short end of the stick. They just don't realize who did it to them.

ObamaCare vs. RepubliCare

This isn't a States Rights issue--it's a Republican Tribe issue. The GOP has zero respect for states rights, except for specific circumstances in which the state having a right advances the cause of the Republican Tribe. Otherwise they've shown total contempt for states' rights.

Nor is it a Conservative/Liberal issue. The world's leading conservative/capitalist/free market publication, The Economist, reluctantly endorsed ObamaCare in its latest issue.

Every other wealthy nation's conservatives wouldn't dream of giving up their heavily regulated healthcare systems for RepubliCare--the system that reached its zenith under the last Republican administration. They think American conservatives are nuts. But that's because other countries' conservatives belong to political parties. Ours belong to a tribe. A tribe isn't about competing principles or worldviews. It's about Us vs. Them.

Witness the fact that about a quarter of Americans believe that President Obama is the literal, biblical Antichrist.

That's not something you can reason with.

But for what it's worth, whatever the Republican leadership says, RepubliCare is exactly the existing system with no changes--because that's what the Republican Congress (1994-2006) gave us. I trust what people do when they're in power--not what they say they'll do when they aren't.

And every economist worth his salt has said that Republicare was becoming so much more expensive--even without considering the inequities--that the economy would not be able to support it within a decade or so.

So remember, the alternative to ObamaCare is RepubliCare--and in the latter case, the "Care" part is a sick joke. So to speak.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Clean hands and bad apples--Propaganda 101

We're in the midst of a huge, expensive campaign aimed at shaping and directing public opinion and votes. Seems opportune to look behind the curtain for a minute and see just how this is done.

What I'll say here could be used by any political party, any time--it has little to do with any party's platform. This is about process--the process of getting voters to vote your way without thinking.

Now--suppose you're a political consultant. Suppose you're a technical person who solves problems without regard to words like "moral" or "immoral." Now suppose a political party's leaders ask you to craft a strategy to marshal the half of the country without much education or smarts--while at the same time holding onto the allegiance of its smarter, more educated members.

This is pretty tricky, really. What marshals the mob is demagoguery. But demagoguery tends to offend educated people. So you need a way to do the demagoguery with a firewall between the two zones, so the party's leaders can appear to have clean hands. At the same time you can train your more educated cohort to accept more demagogic appeals by triggering people's tribalism.

In America today, even educated people usually believe you have to go to some backward country to see tribalism. Just try this thought experiment. I say "tribesman." What do you see in your mind? You see some nonwhite dude in a loincloth with a bone through his nose, don't you? I'm not saying you're racist. I'm saying we've been led to think that people in the rich countries aren't tribal.

But it's in our DNA. It's not just the way our ancestors lived. It's the way our part of the evolutionary tree has lived for at least five million years--right from the time we dropped out of the trees and started living on the ground. In the trees everyone could flee if trouble showed up. On the ground--if you don't have a tribal organization, you're toast.

That didn't go poof! when we figured out how to modify our environment instead ourselves, maybe 10,000 years ago. We've got civilization, but all those tribal instincts are there inside us, 100% intact...ready to be triggered. Some triggers are benign--love thy neighbor, expressed in a beautiful song, scenes of self-sacrifice for the common good.

But the most reliable--the most effective at shutting off our ability to reason--well, that would be fear/anger/paranoia, because when the tribe is threatened you circle the wagons.

And when people kick into tribal mode they will readily vote against their own self-interest--even educated people will. It's that strong.

A lot of what people think of as racism is really tribalism. It's simplest when everyone in your tribe looks like you, of course, but our human minds can often work around that. And of course it's just as possible to see someone who looks just like you as being in the enemy tribe.

Now to recent events.

In a recent op-ed piece, liberal NY Times columnist Bob Herbert indicted the Republican Party for its "absence of class," saying that it's "tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior,"and that "It’s long past time to acknowledge that a party that promotes ignorance and provides a safe house for bigotry cannot serve the best interests of our country."

Many comments on the comment thread rejected this accusation, of course.

For example, one commentor called Herbert a liar, saying that the behavior Herbert referred to was just that of a few bad apples--or, especially in the case of racist behavior, that Democrats just make up the incident...that it's race-baiting equivalent to soccer players who fake injuries on the field in order to game the officiating.

This commentor said "Kindly tell us oh honest Bob, just who are those in the Republican Party are who are tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior."

He said a lot more, mostly about how evil and treasonous the Democrats are, but you get the picture.

This is the clean hands gambit at work. Muster your troops at the grassroots level, but have it done by proxies. Iran has Hezbollah. The GOP has the Tea Party movement. These aren't sock puppets--they'll often go off-script, and sometimes drag their masters, leash and all, into the weeds. But proxy wars are worth it to our hypothetical consultant, because even if they do go off-script you can disavow them, all the while capitalizing on all the stuff they do that advances your party.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More on the Economist's endorsement of the healthcare bill

The Economist reluctantly endorsed voting for the healthcare reform bill. This garnered dozens of comments from Tea Party types. I said this in response to both (which you also see at the Economist's website):

For readers of the Economist who aren't fluent in American, maybe I can help with some of the terminology used in many of these comments:

Socialism: any regulation of any business in any way.

You see, as a child Ayn Rand was traumatized by the Soviets confiscating her parents' estate. This made her unable to distinguish between regulation and confiscation, and she passed this philosophical virus on to generations of American right wingers.

Liberal/Conservative: in America we use these terms somewhat differently. Basically, conservatives long to restore an America that never was, while liberals long to transform it into a nation that never will be. So they're dueling dreamers.

Conservatives are happy to destroy the environment as long as they can keep driving their three ton SUVs. Liberals are happy to destroy American unskilled laborers' livelihoods in order to make America the safety valve for Mexico's overpopulation crisis (from 20 million people in 1940 to over 100 million in 2000). So neither is either.

And since Conservatism (capital C) has become a religion, they'll regard the Economist's apply of reason to the messy healthcare bill as heresy. Because in a religion, study is not analytical but rather worshipful. And, as you've experienced with Europe's radicalized Muslims, you are not allowed to disagree, with or without reasons--only to obey.

And when you read nutcases here declaring that the Democratic legislators in Congress should be tried for treason by a military tribunal--you'll see that they've left the basic tenets of constitutional democracy far, far behind.

But since our schools teach children facts but not what to do with them, they aren't aware that they've abandoned our nation's basic values--because they didn't understand those values in the first place.

For my part, as a centrist American who's reasonably educated, I think the Economist has assessed our healthcare bill spot on.

Now I'm waiting to see whether our Supreme Court--whose hard-right near-majority lied about their objectivity during their Senate approval hearings--will summarily overturn the universal health insurance mandate in the bill, thus kneecapping it.

Tagging the libertarians

There were a lot of libertarian comments on Dana Milbanks' latest Washington Post blog entry, about the unwisdom of Republicans pinning their next campaign on repealing healthcare reform. It garnered hundreds of very snarky comments (right wingers appear to be in an unusually bad mood today), so I entered the following (and got a little snarky myself):

So our social safety net--now amped up slightly by this healthcare reform act--is an American tragedy, huh?

Meaning that since our safety net (even with the latest bill passing) is the skimpiest of any developed country..and since, apparently, the skimpier the safety net the more virile and successful a country is, ours must be doing the best, and a place like Germany or Sweden the worst.

Hmmm. I bet a lot of Germans and Swedes (including conservative ones) would find that pretty laughable.

But if you really believe that, I encourage you to move to a truly free enterprise capitalist country with no emasculating social safety net, where you can let your overwhelming manliness take wings and soar above the crowd.

I suggest the Philippines. I've been there a couple of times. Pure capitalism--and it's got a lot of American influence. So you all should feel right at home.

Go, now. Shoo!

Still here? You should have the courage of your convictions.

But as long as you insist on sticking around, explain me this:

How are you all such geniuses that you know better about the healthcare reform bill than The Economist?

You know, The Economist--the world's leading periodical devoted to free enterprise capitalism since 1843?

This week's issue endorsed voting for this healthcare reform act. Honestly, it's not their ideal way to do it. But all things considered, at this time, in this place, they recommended voting for it.

What do your towering intellects have to say to the editors of The Economist?

I can't wait.

Words to remember

The head of Congress' House Republicans stated, for the record, that the healthcare reform bill "will ruin our economy."

I also saw him call passage of the bill "Armageddon" in another interview.

So if our economy isn't ruined by the bill, may I assume that Representative Boehner will admit that the Republican Party was profoundly wrong on this critical issue, and then switch to the Democratic Party?

If the economy is ruined, I'll be glad to pledge to renounce the Democratic Party and become a Republican....

Friday, March 19, 2010

Immigration reform

A bipartisan stab at "comprehensive immigration reform" has been presented by Senators Schumer and Graham. You can read it here.

It actually tries to accommodate most Americans' opposition to illegal immigration, and it includes a biometric ID system that could work, I think, though I'd go even farther in that direction.

The biggest question should be timing. It ends with describing a form of amnesty for illegals currently in the country. Previous efforts at reform also combined enforcement with amnesty.

However, after they passed the enforcement aspect evaporated like dew at dawn, while the amnesty produced so many Latino citizens that they now outnumber people who see themselves as Black.

So--what I'd say to Schumer and Graham is that I'd be glad to consider their proposal, but I'll only take it seriously if this one puts enforcement first, and uses objective metrics that must be met before any of the amnesty elements kick in. I'm against amnesty myself, but we live in a world where its takes compromise to get anything done, I suppose.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What to say to opponents of healthcare reform

Claim: The Democrats' health care reform bill forces taxpayers to pay for abortion.

Answer: This is a lie. The bill actually reduces access to abortion. Which is one reason why associations representing 59,000 American Catholic nuns support it, along with the association of Catholic hospitals. And in fact pro-abortion rights activists are extremely disappointed by the bill's anti-abortion provisions. This is a case of doctrinaire Catholics and Fundamentalists being sore winners.

Claim: The Democrats' health care reform bill is a European Socialist government takeover of health care.

Answer: If so, then the Republicans are Socialists, because the bill that's about to be voted on is basically a rehash of the Republican healthcare bill that they proposed as an alternative to "Hillarycare" in 1993--which they quietly dropped in favor of nothing as soon as they go back in power. So it's actually the healthcare reform Republicans wanted before the Republican Party was taken over by wack jobs and corporate tools in 1994.

Claim: the Democrats' health care reform bill will cost American taxpayers a trillion dollars--we just can't afford it.

Answer: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan institution that the Republicans frequently quote when its estimates favor them, said in their preliminary estimate released today...that the Democrats' health care bill will save taxpayers $1T in its first 20 years.

Claim: the Democrats' health care reform bill is wealth redistribution from the majority of Americans who are satisfied with their health care to bums and illegal immigrants.

Answer: the Democrats have emphasized the extension of health care to the many millions of Americans who now lack any kind of health care insurance. Although the original proposals included illegals, it now explicitly excludes them. And the rest do get free health care today--only they're charged enormous amounts by the hospitals, which are usually not paid, and the cost is then transferred to us, or they go bankrupt paying and we wind up on the hook for their welfare payments.

And despite the bill's backers emphasizing its altruistic aspects, there's a lot there for us from a selfish viewpoint.

Moreover, the bill has many provisions that will aid ordinary Americans who now have coverage. If you change your job and go to a small company and have a pre-existing medical condition, this will keep the health insurance companies from denying your new company coverage that includes you (or pricing so high as to be impractical). If you fall seriously ill, your health insurance company will no longer be able to rescind your coverage based on some error you may have made in filling out the forms a decade previously.

In other words, things that could easily--and routinely do--happen to people who think they have good health care coverage will be safe once the bill is passed.

Claim: the Democrat Party is using parliamentary tricks instead of putting it to a straight up or down vote. Those tricks are unconstitutional!

Answer: Well, if they are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court with its hard-right majority will promptly strike it down, so you not only have nothing to worry about, but you should let the Democrats pass it as quickly as possible so you can get that SCOTUS overturning judgment handed down before the next election.

Otherwise--the parliamentary tricks are ones the Republicans used routinely, dozens of times--even on financially significant legislation--when they were in power. Those "tricks" were approved by Republicans now complaining about them..when they were in power. Hypocrites much?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Eight reforms Democrats and Republicans should unite to enact

At this time of maximum partisan ranting, I keep hoping that honorable Republicans and Democrats will unite to work for reform of America's political infrastructure, so as to make elections and governance more fair and more democratic, regardless of who's in power at any given time.

First on this list is nonpartisan legislative redistricting. Gerrymandering produces districts where the pols pick the voters instead of vice-versa. This is inherently corrupting--and it produces legislatures full of partisans.

Second is open primaries that put the top two vote-getters in the final election, regardless of party, and instant runoff final elections, in which you vote for both a first and second choice at once; then if nobody gets a majority, the election is automatically recalculated, taking people's backup choices into account. This lets people vote their heart, even it's for a Ralph Nader or a Ross Perot, but also vote their head, to make sure their voting preferences are really taken into account.

Third is modifying the electoral college system to send electors proportional to the vote in every state instead of winner take all. This doesn't require a constitutional amendment--just an agreement between all the states to make the change, since any one large state doing so unilaterally would help one party or the other, but doing so nationwide helps both parties and helps states' rights, because then elections wouldn't be distorted into focusing on the needs of a few battleground states.

Fourth is amending the Constitution to eliminate considering any but American citizens in determining Congressional apportionment (this generally favors Republicans, I note, even though I'm a Democrat--but it's fairer).

Fifth is eliminating the anchor baby loophole from the Constitution. The loophole favors Democrats like me, but again the current system isn't fair, and that's more important.

Sixth is modifying the electoral college system so that it's a little less imbalanced between populous and non-populous states. Currently one Montana voter's vote counts as much as nearly four California voters. How about halving the imbalance?

Seventh is making district attorneys and judges unelected offices and putting a 20 year term limit on Supreme Court appointments. Elected judges and DAs corrupts the system, tipping it towards conviction and longer sentences regardless of circumstances.

Eighth is making passing a relevant civil service exam a prerequisite to running for national office. The exam should be, oh, 2/3 as difficult as a Bar exam.

Would you agree these eight nonpartisan reforms? Do you have any others that you think should be supported by both Democrats and Republicans?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to figure out the minority party's agenda

Whenever one of the major parties is out of power, you can go its party platform to find out what it would do if and when it got back in power.

But isn't it far more certain to see what that party did when it was in power? That's when a party has to put its money where its mouth is.

Right now an omnibus financial services industry reform bill has been introduced by the majority party. The Republicans will say "our plan is better," and offer one as they try to shoot down anything that would crimp the style of their backers on Wall Street--in the name of The People, of course.

But let's recall what the Republican Party did about financial services industry reform during the 12 years they controlled Congress:

Nothing. Unless you count deregulation and hamstringing enforcement of whatever regulations were left by defunding the regulators.

This isn't an argument for or against the Democrats' bill. I'm just pointing out that the alternative to the PIP's (Party in Power's) bills are never the POOP's (Party Out Of Power's) proposals. It's what the POOP did when it was the PIP.

Given the nature of our constitutional democracy, at the federal level we get the bills of one party or the other, and those are pretty much our only alternatives.

It's the same with healthcare reform. I don't have to be a mindreader to know that the Republican alternative--what they'd do if and when they regain power--is nothing at all. Because that's what they did. Not rocket science. Ditto this financial services reform bill.

So please don't compare the Democrats' very flawed efforts with some dream bill--or with what the Republicans are saying they'll do if you put them back in the driver's seat. The Republicans have proven that they're the party of no regulation of businesses. That's the real alternative to what the Democrats have put forth.

Just ask yourself: are these bills better than exactly nothing? Of course Republican hardliners will opt for nothing in a heartbeat. Independents and Eisenhower Republicans--and hard left Democrats, for that matter--should know better.

See what liberal economist Paul Krugman has to say about these bills. He's shown an ability to not let his ideology keep him from living in reality.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Let's talk about the Bible and abortion

The abortion debate has become the fulcrum of healthcare reform, so it's a good time to revisit the foundation of "pro-life" ideas: the Bible. Or is it?

Here's every place the word "abortion" appears in the Bible: [nada]

Here's what Christ said we should do about abortion, compared to the other things he told his followers to do: [nada]

So anti-abortion zealots who say they're Christians have placed their ideas above God's and Christ's.

Now the Bible does mention the one who put his ideas above God's: that's Satan.

Which makes anti-abortion zealots Satan worshipers pretending to be Christians.

PS: Anti-abortion zealots constantly state "life begins at conception." Biblically speaking this is unsupported nonsense.

It's what scientists believed in the 19th century. That's what a pope used at the time as the basis for this claim. But 21st century science has proven that this isn't so.

"Life begins at conception" is code language for "God gives us a soul at the moment of conception."

However, anti-abortion zealots don't like to be honest about what they're saying when they're not among fellow Satan worshipers. But if it isn't code words for ensoulment it's empty language, since your liver is also alive, but it doesn't have its own soul.

And we can't all be ensouled at the moment of conception because not all of us are formed at the moment of conception--particularly monozygotic twins and chimaeras--while other fertilized eggs aren't viable no matter how you slice it--so no loving God would ensoul them either.

Other fetuses are theoretically viable but the mother is unable to give birth to them without medical intervention--otherwise they'll die, often taking the mother with them.

So again a loving God would only ensoul such endangered fetuses in countries with universal health care, or whose mothers are wealthy.

Which means that the only religiously justifiable timing for ensoulment is the moment of viable birth--when the baby takes his first breath unaided--not the moment of conception.

But if you want to be strictly biblical, you'd move the goalpost to one month of age, since the Bible accords no status to infants until they reach that milestone.

You'd think people who are this passionate about the Bible would read it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Jammed down our throats"

Politicians love to talk about things being "jammed down our throats." It's such a violent metaphor. The thought of having your airway blocked..I know this, more or less, from my scuba diving training. At one point they had us kneel on the bottom of Monterey Bay, then came around from behind and turned our air off. It was safe--they had assistant instructors ready to save our lives if we screwed up--but believe me, if you can't breathe, that fact trums every single other thing in life.

Now in politics, this phrase is used to complain about rights being trampled--by a legislative majority acting contrary (it's claimed) to public opinion, by "unelected judges," or the like.

Which raises the whole majority-minority rights thing.

The Republican legislators demand what amounts to a veto on all legislation and appointments that require Senate approval. It should go without saying that they didn't regard this as the definition of minority rights when they were in power. When they were in power they demanded an "up or down vote" on everything they were willing to put to a vote and not lock up in committees.

Their justification is that the polls are on their side.

But even it that were true, it means the Republicans are saying we should become a direct democracy, with legislative decisions determined by polling.

And whether that's desirable or not, it's against the Constitution.

So if they want direct democracy/democracy by polling, they need to propose discarding our Constitution--which they've done, in effect, by their words and deeds.

It's only legitimate to use "jammed down our throats" politically when the majority in control of Congress does something the minority objects to--and in a way that's unconstitutional. It's more appropriate when the minority uses congressional rules in a way never envisioned when those rules were created, in order to block the majority.

The term is also used when people object to rulings by "unelected" judges that run contrary to the will of the people (as evinced by either opinion polls or noisy demonstrations). Again, this isn't legitimate unless the judge's ruling turns out to be unsconstitutional--not when it's simply unpopular.

Again the undercurrent is an unspoken demand that the country be run by opinion poll. So it should be obvious why this is unspoken, since it's so radical (and unworkable)--no genuine conservative would ever propose overthrowing the Constitution in favor of opinion polls. But self-styled conservatives use this appeal all the time, hoping that no one will point out how radical and completely unAmerican it is.

Conservatives among our founders--like Alexander Hamilton, for one--knew that mob rule led straight to the French Revolution and its barbaric excesses. They'd be spinning in their graves if they knew that their supposed descendants were sounding more and more like Robespierre and his gang.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Your town wants to install red light cameras

...if it hasn't already. Times are tough, no one wants to pay more who cares if we take a few Benjamins out of the bad guys' pockets to help our town make up its deficit?

Here's why:

Those who think red light cameras are a Good Thing are missing a few facts, which leads to people who consider themselves moral taking what turns out to be an immoral position—in the name of morality no less.

Any facts I cite can be independently verified by going to and using its links to go to the original sources. The website is opposed to red light cameras, but the links go to things like the Virginian and Texas departments of transportation and other such relatively objective sites.

Argument 1: The law is the law. Don’t try to beat the yellow light and you won’t get a ticket.

Um, the cameras aren’t red light cameras. They’re yellow light cameras, because they’re only profitable when used in conjunctions with the shortest yellow light timing state law allows. There have been cases—including ones here in California—where the yellow light timing was actually illegal, and numerous fines had to be refunded.

The shortest timing that’s legal is 3.0 seconds. When that’s increased to 4 seconds, the number of infractions drops by 80% and pretty much stays there. It stays there because those who miss the yellow by less than a second aren’t trying to “push the envelope.” It just takes them that long to make the go/no go decision once the light turns yellow and to actually stop. It this were not so, the level of infractions would be the same as for 3 second timing after a short period of adjustment. But that’s not what happens.

You don’t have to believe me, though. Try it. Have the yellow light set to 4 seconds and see what happens. Only you won’t get to, because Redflex (the Australian company that makes and operates the camera systems) will refuse to allow their systems to be installed unless you time the yellow light as short as is legally permitted.

Locally, some of the most “productive” cameras exploit a special loophole in California state yellow light timing standards: it lets you use the minimal 3.0 second yellow light on the left turns from expressways onto city streets. There’s reason to believe that turn lights from high speed roads are the biggest moneymakers among so-called red light camera setups.

Worst yet, few accidents are caused by drivers turning through intersections in the first place. They’re caused primarily by drivers barreling through intersections, going straight, around 5 seconds after the light has changed. They aren’t trying to beat the yellow. They don’t even know the light is there, either because they’re drunk, or stoned, or distracted, or being chased by the cops, or chasing someone else. Red light cameras mean nothing to such people.

Just such a driver nearly killed my spouse and me a few months ago, so I’ve seen what I’m talking about. And a few years ago I was nearly killed on my bicycle by a teenage girl running a stop sign on a residential cross street. She never saw the sign, judging from her behavior as she tore across a thoroughfare at 35mph. Luckily she did so during a lull in the traffic. Only I would have been killed if I hadn’t stood on my brakes. Otherwise it would have been carnage.

And sometimes the law isn’t legal. For example, dozens of California cities have illegal contracts with Redflex that indemnify Redflex if the ticket count goes below a certain level. This is unconstitutional, under the “fruit of the poison tree” principle explicitly stated in the Constitution. And appellate judges are finding this to be the case in one jurisdiction after another. But these cases only become a binding precedent if they’re “published,” and California’s municipal governments have been successful at preventingt this to date.

At some point someone who gets a ticket will have the resources to take a case to the state Supreme Court, and then we might see many millions of dollars of tickets being refunded by cities. Every one of these illegal contracts state that they aren’t illegal, by the way, just before the illegal clause. And no “traffic commissioner” is going to overturn a ticket on these grounds. And no appeal will have a prayer of success unless you spend a lot on a lawyer or are one yourself. This makes the local traffic courts conviction machines, and everyone associated with them knows it.

All this parallels what happened half a century ago when many cities ran speed traps—abnormally low speed limits with half-hidden signage and a cop permanently stationed there. But the state legislature banned speed traps. What we need today is an update banning time traps, forcing cities to use reasonable yellow light timing. That will eliminate red light cameras, but it shouldn’t. It only removes them as a source of profits. They still work fine at helping police track down dangerous red light runners. Which leads me to:

Argument 2: Besides catching bad guys, red light cameras help fill city coffers.

The problem with this is that it’s blatantly immoral. But let’s start on a practical level. Half the money leaves not just our city but our state, going to an Australian company. What’s left goes to fill in the gap between what most of us earn and the 40% or so more than us that employees in the public sector get for comparable work. But all of that money moves out of residents’ discretionary income.

So these fines succeed in moving over half the money away from the local economy--Starbucks and Mike’s Bikes and Shady Lane and Safeway--all of which surely need our business. It's income redistribution from private sector employees to public sector employees plus a foreign country.

And on a moral level…suppose a the fine for a crime should be $100, just to pull a number out of the air. Only you make the fine $400—which is about what a red light camera ticket runs. Assuming the crime was committed, and the law was legal, and you got the right perp, then that $100 is perfectly justifiable. The other $300 is theft, no different than the last time I was in La Paz, Mexico, and a couple of local cops tried to shake me down. If you read that local cops robbed people they caught committing crimes, you'd demand that they be fired, wouldn't you? How is this any different?

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

So I’m appalled that our town's mayor actually brags about all the money he hopes to make off people he regards as criminals—except, as I’ve shown here, many of them will be manufactured criminals.

Speed traps are immoral. Time traps are immoral. Stealing from criminals is still stealing, and, yes, it’s immoral.

And if you advocate soaking lawbreakers for far more than the gravity of the crime justifies—you’re immoral.


But then I thought of a Plan B:


Personally I think we should have red light cameras, and ticket drivers who miss the light.

But they will be a cost item, not a profit item, because they'd be for missing four second yellows instead of three second yellows, and the fine would be $100 instead of $400. $100 is a deterrent for anyone with limited income, while $400 isn't a deterrent for the affluent, while a point on your driver's record probably is.

If my town's poobahs really think people missing yellow lights is a significant safety hazard, they should be willing to spend money to reduce it. And if they want to avoid the moral hazard of fining-for-profit instead of fining-for-prevention, they'll be happy with the least amount that deters instead of the greatest amount they can get away with.

Note that nearly all other states have red light fines in the $25-$125 range.

As for rolling right turns--those aren't a hazard for hitting other cars, but they do present a hazard for bicylists who are themselves running a red light. I'm a bicyclist myself but I don't approve of cyclists interfering with others' right of way. OTOH a rolling right turn isn't the driver's right of way either.

I think my compromise would be to ticket rolling rights but for, say, $50 instead of $400+. That's a deterrent but it isn't exorbitant.

Remember, exorbitant fines make ordinary citizens resentful of the law. We all keep a little record book in our heads of every time we think we were victimized--particularly by those with the power of the state held over our heads. The result is a citizenry actively looking for ways to evade the law, and, among the more juvenile, for opportunites to vandalize state property or even private property.

State lawlessness begets personal lawlessness.

Using the cameras the way I described here would strike most people as reasonable and fair, even when they did get caught. The current system has the opposite effect.

Jihad Jane proves profiling doesn't work!

Jihad Jane is a petite, blonde-haired, green-eyed, American 46 year old who was arrested for planning to murder a European cartoonist who dissed Muhammed.

Leftists have proclaimed this arrest as proof that profiling doesn't work.

This is moronic, of course. Sure, there are non-Arab jihadi. Sure, you shouldn't categorically exclude anyone from scrutiny. But if 90% of jihadi are young Middle Eastern/Indian-looking men, ignoring that statistical fact is suicidal. Someone who fits the profile of the vast majority of people who have attacked us should expect extra scrutiny, and someone who doesn't shouldn't expect to get an automatic pass. Both of these facts are true.

Calls to abandon profiling in this and in most other instances seem to stem from a willingness to sacrifice public safety in the name of one's ideology, combined with innumeracy that makes people blind to statistical probabilities.

See what the New York Times considers inappropriate

Today's Maureen Dowd column chronicles her trip to Saudi Arabia. She was unhappy that she was forbidden to enter a mosque--not to mention Mecca in toto. See it here:

The NYT ran 140 comments on this article, and I'm unhappy that I was forbidden to run mine. Once again, I can't for the life of me figure out what made them censor it out--especially considering the comments they did run.

When you submit a comment, the NYT comment robot says: "Thank you for your submission. Submissions are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive."

Here's my comment:

You should have gone with us on our last trip to Bali (October 2009). Bali is 94% Hindu--all by itself in a sea of mostly Islamic Indonesia. Indonesia generally practices about as moderate a form of Islam as you'll find. But tell that to Bali's Hindus. We visited one of their holier temples, on the shore of a mountain lake in the middle of the island, visited by numerous locals.

Muslims had recently built a big blue mosque on a hillock above and behind this temple. From this new mosque, religious harangues issues from a stadium rock-class sound system every hour through all of the day and most of the night. If a Hindu ceremony was going on at the temple...tough. Listen to the true religion, you scum, was the message.

This was no fluke. Muslims are building big mosques all over Bali, every one of them equipped with a humongous sound system, used fervently, despite Hindus being the majority population all around them.

We had the same experience elsewhere in Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, which has a substantial Christian minority. But no matter.

Maureen, one travel tip: never book a hotel near a mosque. You won't get a lot of sleep.

Now our personal interactions with Muslims throughout Indonesia over six trips there in the last decade have been invariably pleasant. And we look very, very American. The problem is the mosques and the hardliners there, richly supplied with oil money flowing from the West to Saudi Arabia, thence to the rest of the Muslim world.

And what flows from the mosques is total contempt for all other religions, coupled with relentless cultural imperialism. If only they matched the Muslims on the street that we dealt with. But they didn't.


Abusive? Off-topic? What?

The comments they did run included many by Muslims admonishing Ms. Dowd for her ignorant criticisms (from their viewpoint at least), others excoriating the entire Muslim world, others just slamming Ms. Dowd, and plenty slamming the Saudi's extra-toxic brand of Islam.

So I still don't understand what let all that through but made my comment unacceptable.

"Miss me yet?"

How can I miss you when your Supreme Court justices won't go away?

Monday, March 8, 2010

How much do you know about the census?

A friend sent me one of those online quizzes--this was on MSNBC, about census info:

He sent it to his stepkids-equivalents (both college students) and me and my spouse.

I got 30%; my spouse, 40%--and we're both pretty educated. Sigh.

I sort of dismissed it as a quiz about trivia, and one of the college students did too, making the sort of airy dismissal of demographic knowledge that liberal arts types are fond of making. And I sort of did too, saying I only knew significa, not trivia (though I notice that lots of other people think my significa are their trivia, to be honest).

But I had second thoughts, and here they are. These contain many spoilers for the quiz, so take it first (if you're going to take it at all) before reading further.

This whole discussion isn't directly about politics, but it is relative to the sort of prep people should do before engaging in political discussions. Like the Music Man said, "ya gotta know the territory."

So here are my thoughts [remember, take the test now before reading on; it's only 10 multiple choice questions]:

Given Google etc., this test raises the question of what should be in our heads vs. what should we have the skills/knowledge to look up if we need to vs. what’s just downright trivial.

I said a lot of it was trivial, but reconsidering this little quiz, I’m thinking it’s more useful than I gave it credit for.

1. Which state has the largest Asian population?
4. Blacks make up what % of the American population?
These really ask how much demographics should we know?
I suppose it depends on whether you want people to listen when you speak about anything besides interpersonal stuff.
Everyone on this thread is pretty numerate, yes? That means you know what numbers mean—and just as someone who can read sheet music hears it when he reads it, and someone who understands finances SEES the cashflows of an enterprise when he looks at a balance sheet—someone who understands demographics sees a country in those stats, senses the particularly multithreaded character of our nations…looks at our flag with big yellow eyes and say “I see you.”

3. How much candy do Americans eat annually per person?
This really asks whether public health issues matter to you (or, selfishly, whether the candy industry is a growth industry it would be practical to get into). Of course if you only care about yourself or just yourself and people you know personally, maybe it doesn’t matter.

5. Several towns are noted for their Christmas-like names…
Who cares? I dunno why anyone would give a rat’s patootie about knowing this. If you ever do need to know, that’s what Google’s for, right?

6. Which of the following occupations has the highest number of employees?
I got this wrong—I thought it was janitors & building cleaners. This actually falls under the rubric of demographics, like questions 1 & 4, only I knew the answers to those & not to this, so it must be different (!).
Sure, you can look this up if you have a particular need to know it. And obviously I didn’t feel that need. But it is nice to have a feel for this country as a sort of living tapestry of workflows—as a microorganism, collectively sessile, individually mobile, like a gigantic coral reef of sorts.

7. % of Americans with disability?
I estimated 10% while it was 15%. For my purposes that was close enough—in the ballpark. This quiz doesn’t distinguish between being close and being clueless. I don’t think you have to be spot on if it’s not a professional need. A quiz like this would be better if it gave partial points for close-to-correct answers, because that maps better to what laypeople like us need to know. Basically we just need to be in the ballpark.

8. Which state raises the most turkeys?
I don’t suppose it’s crucial to your grasp of Western Civilization to know this, and I didn’t. Minnesota was my second choice, but I went with Arkansas, a huge chicken state.
Some facts are inherently entertaining. I admit, this isn’t one of them. But people who can take an interest in facts that don’t glow all on their own have a huge advantage in life. Because they put their own glow on everything. Then the world, which is to so many a gray flat place with occasional fountains of light and even rarer fireworks, becomes a perpetual Indonesian scuba diving trip, and the extra-special stuff becomes even specialer.
And now you’ve heard poetic prose about turkey stats.

9. What % of households consider their neighborhood safe?
I was waaaaay off on this one, and I still find the stat on the test hard to grasp. And this question is probably the best reason for me at least to have taken this test, because it’s the only one where the answer matters and I was clueless—but thought I was clueful. You have to find out when and where your assumptions are seriously wrong, and the only way is to put them out there, as when you take a test like this. My parents both lived in separate alternate realities, in which their own dreams and desires and fears trumped the real world. It caused them pain and everyone around them as well. It made me passionate about the beauty of real reality as opposed to projecting my inner state on the world/universe. So questions like this, where I was so wrong, matter a lot to me.

10. Nation’s 2nd most frequently reported ancestry?
Here again I was one off (German, which is the most frequently reported). Probably close enough for us non-demographers. Again I make a pitch for the ballpark. When I was a teacher, I found that kids tended strongly to think you were either right or wrong, and they had no grasp of how important ballparking is. They think close means no kewpie doll. But in real life, have a pretty good general grasp of demographic reality is very useful. Tests would map to real life better if they followed this instead of reinforced the false perception kids have that it’s a universe dimorphic in all things.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Regional issue showcases how people who fight dirty win debates

Right wingers regularly hammer left wingers on talk shows, and the reasons have nothing to do with the merits of each side's facts and ideas. The right wingers win because the left wingers believe in letting the other side have its say, while the right wingers believe in silencing the other side--as seen by last years town hall meetings on healthcare reform.

But there's more. Most of the right wing debaters do their best to keep the other side from even completing sentences, and in browbeating moderators into letting them do so. If the moderator objects the radio/TV station gets a blizzard of complaints demanding that the moderator be replaced by someone who isn't "biased."

Right wingers also use focus group-tested talking points, repeated over and over. These may or may not be factually correct, but they're always emotionally powerful, using turns of phrase like "jamming this law down Americans' throats" to describe a legislative majority passing bills that the minority objects to. This rejects one of democracy's fundamental principles--abiding with votes when you lose--but no matter. It plays well.

You can hear all this in action here:

This is a half hour debate between a real estate developer's public relations guy and a public relations person from environmentalist group Save the Bay. The discussion is moderated by a liberal college professor who works hard to be fair to both sides. However, it seems to me that in this case he bent over so far backwards to be fair that he let the developer rep dominate the discussion.

But you can see for yourself.

Here's some backstory for the debate:

In the San Francisco Bay Area, a $120B/yr. corporation headquartered in Minnesota wants to build a 25,000-resident development on the Bay's tidal marshes, now being used for salt evaporation ponds. Environmentalists oppose it for obvious reasons, while realtors and pro-growth types love it.

But it's not that simple. One business group--the businesses that operate around an adjacent deepwater port--oppose the development, because every time residential developments are built next to a port, residents sue the port in droves, even though the port was there first. And they usually win enough to cripple the port's activities.

At the same time, many New Urbanists--usually liberals--advocate building such developments (calling it infilling) because they think it reduces urban sprawl and the problems caused by long commutes. Note that they're careful never to infill their own comfortable neighborhoods, however. They airily dismiss objections by those who are directly impacted as NIMBYism.

Which goes to show that neither side has a lock on either the truth or on fighting fair. Any time student leftists mob an on-campus lecture by a right winger and prevent him/her from speaking, that's nothing more or less than fascism in action.

But on talk shows the right seems to fight dirty--in the ways described here--more than the left. But whoever does it, it's wrong, and whichever side you favor, you should know how to fight it. This requires assertiveness without aggressiveness, which requires not taking the attack personally even if it's meant personally. That's hard but it can be learned.

I don't want Democrats like me to start using Rovian debate tactics. I want both sides to fight fair, and both sides to do their best to prevent the other from doing so, in whatever venue. Our democracy ultimately depends on it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Letters, we get letters

I got a lengthy comment on several of my posts. Here's the comment, followed by my answers to his numbered points:

1. Obama is a snob. No kidding. Don't believe me? Check out "Obama Visits Billionaires Row" ( His visit to Billionaires row is notable not just for his (very) well received fund raising, but what he said (privately, it leaked anyway) while he was there. I quote "And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations" Elitist? I think so. Obama was challenged about his statement some number of times. His response was "it's true isn't it?".

2. On Bank Regulation. You critique of the GOP and bank regulation is only partially correct. Remember that the House Republicans voted against TARP and killed it for a while. Why? Because a great many of them believe that free markets including the right to fail, not get bailouts. I know a few Republican Congressmen and they were (are) just as opposed to Wall Street handouts as Matt Taibbi. By contrast, Obama appointed Timothy Geithner as the Secratary of the Treasury after he did such a great job as the chairman of the New York Fed and paying his own taxes...

3. Accusations that Lou Dobbs is a racist are laughable. His wife is Mexican-American and they have two daughers together.

4. You have the politics of Eminent Domain wrong. Ordinary Republicans and Republican politicians were outraged by Kelo vs. City of New London. Of course, Republican property developers were presumably thrilled. However, see Note that the New York Times and the Washington Post endoursed Kelo.
For the record, I supported Kelo as well. I strong oppose using eminent domain for private purposes. However, I don't think it is unconstitutional, merely dismal public policy.

5. You have the details of Bush and Rangers stadium wrong. No land was "stolen for pennies on the dollar". Eminent domain was used to obtain 13 acres of land (not 200 acres). The owners of the land (the Mathes family) sued claiming that the land was worth more than they were paid. A jury agreed with them and awarded a $5 million judgement. With interest this came to $7.5 million. The legal case was against the development authority which paid the judgement. The development authority claimed that the team was liable for the cost of the judgement under the terms of the original development agreement.
Initially the team refused to pay, but eventually did. Note that the team was later sold at a very large profit to Thomas Hicks. The gain to the original investors (roughly $160 million) dwarfed the difference over the value of the Mathes land. See , , and There are any number of things that I find objectionable about Bush's dealings with the Rangers and the City of Arlington. However, the "theft" of private property isn't one of them.


My responses:

1. Obama snob?

If you think humility is the key trait of a great president, you get Gerald Ford and probably no one else in the last century. I'm sure Obama thinks he's hotter stuff than some high school dropout who bags groceries for a living. Well, he is. Did you see him at the healthcare summit? No notes, yet he showed an immense grasp of the subject. I'm not saying this means you should agree with him about healthcare.

But it doesn't mean you should disagree.

The right wing blogosphere obsesses over this. But it didn't over Bush II, who acted like he was better than everyone else all the way back to his college days. The difference is that he was defeated once early in his political career by someone who out-Bubba'd him, and he swore he'd never let that happen again.

Look at their biographies. Bush was born rich, grew up rich, and has lived rich his entire life. Obama was born in an educated home but one with little money, and he bootstrapped himself.

If he were a jerk personally it would show in his relationship with his wife and daughters. Yet obviously he's a better family man than any previous president in memory, back to and very much including Ronald Reagan.

It also shows in his hires. He hires really smart people, and he hires ones who don't necessarily agree with him. He carried over Bush's secretary of defense, and obviously listens to him and backs him. He hired Jim Jones. Bush never did anything of the sort.

And this openness to different ideas goes back to when he was editor of the Harvard Law Review, and the black ideologues and white liberals there were furious with him because he included a number of real conservatives on his team.

If he were a snob he'd only have yes-men around him.

I suspect that what the Right calls snobbery is actually self-respect.

He thinks he's smart and knows a lot because he is and he does. If he thought there was no difference between his intelligence and education and that of Joe Lunchbox I'd think he was insane. {None of this means Obama is always right. He isn't. And he agrees with that, by the way.)

So let's look at it from the other end: why do so many right wingers talk about his supposed snobbery?

a. Anti-intellectualism: Americans--myself included--are descended from peasants. Mine were sharecroppers in Scotland. And not so long ago, either. My grandpa said he raised hawgs "'cause they didn't take no plowin'." The country rejected the Europeans respect for authority, and it shows in our anti-intellectualism. I grew up in white blue-collar neighborhoods, and kids repeatedly accused me of cheating on tests because they couldn't imagine any other reason why my grades were so good.

I'd guess--without recourse to any research--that at least half of Americans are pretty strongly anti-intellectual.

b. Racism: I know, lefties cry "Racist" if a Republican blinks...but the Right also cries "Socialist" if a Democrat advocates any kind of government regulation.

So granting that both sides call each other names constantly, and often without foundation...we all know that a substantial minority of Americans are racist. My father was a racist from Georgia. My mother was not. So my sample of two comes out 50-50. And in fact the most racist people I've met in my life here in California were ghetto Blacks in Richmond and Oakland.

So we should all agree that every race has its racists.

So...what percentage of American voters are racist enough to let race color (so to speak) their vote? Can we all agree that it's at least 30% (remember, the South is nominally part of America)?

Now if you were a Republican strategist, you'd want to keep those people voting against Obama by riling them up. Yet you wouldn't dare say "Don't vote for a Nigrah." So you use code words that are defensible. Hence "snob," which a racist hears as "uppity Nigrah" (which Southern racists like my dad regard as possibly the worst human being this side of a serial killer). Yet if you use "snob" you have what lawyers call "plausible deniability." That is, you can claim it's not racism.

It's the perfect attack, because racists can read the subtitles, and the larger group of anti-intellectuals can also have their buttons pushed--all without having to admit to any feelings that you can't defend in public.

That's why the right talks about Obama's snobbery. It's a tactic and the wrapping paper that hides something darker.

And yes, Black pols routinely use racist appeals in their districts. A few years ago two blacks were vying to be elected mayor of Newark. But the young guy was educated, centrist, and supported by a coalition. The old black crook who opposed him ran a blatantly racist campaign, centered on the them of saying of the new guy "He ain't black."

And yes, Obama shifts into Black-ish dialect when he talks to Black audiences. Exactly the same as Bush abandoning his Harvard MBA-talk and gettin' all Bubba when he spoke to redneck audiences.

The race card gets played by some folks on both sides.

2. Bank regulation.

"Free market" is an ideological term. There's no such thing in reality. I've spent time in countries--like Indonesia--with profoundly "free" markets. The result is always the same: monopoly, enforced by bully boys with guns and government bureaucrats whose job is purely to protect the rich and powerful.

The problem the right wing has is that Ayn Rand saw the Commies confiscate her parents' property, so she concluded that all government control is evil. And the billionaires who bankroll the Republican Party agree with her, since they have no need for any kind of government social services or, for the most part, for infrastructure building/repair either, except for porkbarrel projects like Alaska's bridge to nowhere.

But there's a whole lot of territory between Communism and no government at all (as in Somalia). A modicum of regulation keeps the playing field level, even as those with money and power never stop striving to tilt the playing field and turn what started as a competitive advantage (better products, better service) into monopoly.

Obama's hiring Geithner proves how conservative he is. That hire and others shows he's trying to rescue our American free enterprise system, not destroy it.

TARP was a Hobsian bargain. He felt he had to save financial institutions whose failure would have brought about a collapse rivalling the Great Depression. And that situation came about precisely due to the lax regulation of the Republican years. Yes, subprime mortgages went to those they shouldn't. But that problem would have been isolated from the rest of the economy if the Republicans hadn't let banks turn into gambling casinos on their watch.

Personally I think he should have used managed bankruptcy instead of the bailout Bush engineered and that he kind of got stuck with when he took office (as Paul Krugman advocated), and I think any business too big to fail is too big and needs to be broken up in exchange for government help--as is happening with GM, I notice, and AIG too.

The things Republicans now advocate (as opposed to what they did under Bush) are common sense solutions--let the chips fall where they may, let good businesses survive, bad ones fail--but it's more complicated than that, unfortunately, and I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face.

I've said that America's economy has gotten too complex for the average guy to understand--and that this fact is extremely dangerous for democracy. It's emotionally gratifying to hear politicians claim it's not that complicated, your common sense is enough, and here's the simple solution.

But whenever a politician says something I find flattering and emotionally gratifying I start to worry--and I feel my hip pocket to make sure my wallet's still there.

And when it's the part not in power that's advocating these simply, gratifying solutions I get doubly suspicious.

The left made the same kinds of errors when they tried to solve centuries of segregation and slavery with affirmative action and the welfare state.

That, too, was a solution too simple for the situation.

3. I've never accused Lou Dobbs of being racist--especially since I'm even more opposed to illegal immigration than he is. And I knew about his Latina wife. You must have me confused with someone else. Look in my archives to see what I've said about him and illegal immigration.

4. I think we agree about eminent domain.

It's needed for freeways and reservoirs and railroad right of ways and national parks--not luxury developments by private developers. And I think the wording of the Constitution can be interpreted to support this interpretation.

The problem is that rank and file Republicans feel as I do about eminent domain--but Republican fat cats and their billionaire backers want to use it for private gain, leading to a disconnect between rank and file Republicans and the Republican leadership.

Similarly, many rank and file Democrats oppose special favors for everyone but whites, and actually support colorblind social policy with special support for the poor and disadvantaged of all races, equally. But the Democratic leadership is so beholden to racialist special interest groups it's hard for them to pry loose from that.

5. The Bush-Rangers deal:

I was speaking from a bottom line viewpoint about the complex series of steps Bush used. It wasn't simple theft. It was complex theft. Like Woodie Guthrie said, "Some men rob you with a six-gun--some with a fountain pen."

I agree with the thorough analysis made by Pulitzer-prize-winner economic journalist David Cay Johnston, described in his book "Free Lunch: How the wealthiest Americans enrich themselves at government expense (and stick you with the bill)".

I have to believe that if rank and file Republicans realized how much their leadership preys on them, using socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest of us, that they'd rise up in revolt.

The bottom line for Bush is that he got rich at taxpayer expense, not through building a business that sold goods and/or services whose honest profits made him rich. And his chicanery was only possible through dynastic use of his wealthy family's connections.

I hope these answers help to show that I'm neither a leftist nor a rightist, but rather a reformer who wants there to be leftists and rightists in government--I just want them to be true to their own principles.