Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rabbit Morphine and the Building of the New Compassion

Humanity is on a collision course with destiny.  It has been said that the arc of moral universe is long, but that it bends towards justice.  When speaking of morals we are speaking of the mind and heart of man.  And when speaking of man we are speaking of the tiniest sliver of one species of evolution.  If one were to extend an arm as a representation of geological time, with life's earliest appearance over 3 billion years ago, the history of man would take up less than the tip of a fingernail.

In nature, there exists vastly less morality than we are able to muster.  Apart from a paltry kindness expressed between kin of some higher order species, nature on whole is a cauldron of relentless violence.  We are the sole creature who has evolved sentience, the ability to consciously reflect upon our world in a significant way.  With our highly evolved minds, we have ironically developed both the ability to experience profound and prolonged suffering, and again to witness and recoil from it in others.  For millennium we have fought one another bitterly, summoning our extraordinary cognitive powers to concoct amazing spiritual universes within which we live out our short little lives, experiencing the beauty and tragedy that is work, love, and death.

But within our lonely fingernail, it is only a tiny fraction thereof in which man has had anything like the profound resources of reflection that science has provided for us to pursue meaningful progress towards our ultimate goal of happiness and fulfillment in life.  The moral arc of the universe, expressed most fully in man, has been a slow and plodding slog.  Yet we are just now finally reaching the shores of a biological promised land of sorts, in which we are finally able to deliver to our feeble selves, on a universal basis, a platform from which true happiness is possible for all.

The Present Does Not Exist 
One way to the think of the mind is as a razor blade, demarcating past from future.    What we call the present is merely a useful conceptual illusion intended to create for us a sense of purpose.  In the time it takes for us - our mind - to create a thought and then experience it, what was the future becomes the present for a split second, and is instantaneously the past.  For most of us, the present is generally rarely experienced at all.  Even in our most quiet moments, our minds are aflutter with mental commotion.  When our thoughts are composed of little more than say, the oddity of the way a beam of light is glancing upon the kitchen counter top, or the strange motions of a pet in dream, there is no present.

The less neurotic among us likely experience more moments where no conscious thought is present at all.  At these times we simply seem to float upon a bed of emotional reverie,  vacantly indulging in the vague sensations of existence.  The present is actually quite rare.  We only genuinely experience something like it when we are actively reminded for some reason to turn our gaze markedly inward toward the passing seconds.  But even here, we are not really perceiving a present.  Rather, we are anticipating the seconds as they come and then noticing that they have passed.

Garbage In, Garbage Out
What went before determines what will be.  What we think of as the future is simply a projection from the past.  And as we are not in control of the past, we are not in control of the future.  We simply experience its transfer.  Our ability to predict our future (our actions) is only as good as our ability to project our past (our experiences) into the future, whether consciously or via processes that are unavailable to us as a coherent force yet are nonetheless a driving force behind decision making, if not often the sole determining force.  The array of choices I see before me is only representative of what my past is able to provide for me.  The degree to which I feel compelled to do anything, I will or will not make that choice.  And so it is with my ultimate ability to choose one course of action.  I am only as strong as I was.  And I was only as strong as I was before that.  And so on, and so on - back into my developing conscious mind.

In the abstract, any man can do anything that any man can do.  But in reality, one man can only do the one thing that that man can do.  This is what he will do.  Just as if you knew the physical properties of the motion of every atom in a rainstorm, you would know exactly where a drop of rain will blow, if you knew the physical properties of every atom in a man's mind, you would know what he will do.  We may not know every atom in a man's brain, but we are working on it.  Pedantic quantum scientists will argue here that because it is impossible to know the precise location of sub-atomic particles, and therefore impossible to ever perfectly determine the future based on physical projections, we must realize that the thought experiment succeeds in principle.  We are fully caused.

The Process Has Already Begun
We are beginning to map the neural circuitry of the mind.  We know the general regions involved in specific cognitive processes.  Higher-order thinking involves an overwhelming degree of inter-related patterning, making a detailed analysis of individual thoughts seemingly impossible.  But at the personal level we have psychology to give us reliable data on the human psyche.  And at the macro level we have sociological research that gives reliable data on broad trends among human groups according to characteristics.

For the past 100 years humans have slowly been building a sort of behavioral genome.  From genetics to birth, from early childhood to adulthood, we have been mapping what goes into the human mind, what the mind then does with it, and how we then act.  We have data from many different modalities, all reinforcing the scientific model that is slowly allowing us to finally step outside of our own illusion of self and see the true being that we have ever only been able guess at.

The truly beautiful part, is that the closer we come to this goal of truly knowing ourselves, the closer we get to knowing others.  And the closer we get to knowing others, the more compassion we will be capable of.  This compassion, based entirely in our own basically selfish desire for happiness and fulfillment, will ultimately be what allows us to enable each other to realize that dream - to the best of our ability - for every living member of planet Earth.

Onward, Evolutionary Soldiers
What's next is anyone's guess.  My own question is how far we end up extending this New Compassion to the rest of the animal kingdom.  To the degree that they are capable of experiencing what we think of as happiness and fulfillment, how far will we go in seeking to provide them our help.  The natural order of the planet is neither happiness or suffering, but the purely technical process of natural selection.  If a species' survival depends upon its constant suffering, there is no reason that it would not have evolved a sort of living hell.  But these are question that may not need to be asked for generations, if were to be so lucky.  There is much work to be done within our own species and its direct impact upon itself and other creatures.  But I think sending aid workers out to administer morphine to dying mammals is certainly plausible.

There have of course been plenty of examples of peaceful societies throughout history.  Likewise, there have been peaceful families, and peaceful individuals.  And yet the violence has always been terrific.  Scientists still disagree as to what extent humanity has an evolved predisposition toward war.  But we know more now than ever before how to construct societies that provide happiness and fulfillment on a massive scale.  We are no where close to world peace, and it could all come crashing down rather easily.  Yet if the human mind, voracious in its attempt to expand its own consciousness, is destined to communicate with others in this quest it will inevitably grow ever more cognizant of what it is and how to get where it wants to go.  Either as a byproduct of this effort, or just as the road upon which it must travel, compassion towards others will only grow stronger and stronger.  It is built into the process, just as we are built into ourselves.  In our quest to know who we are, we know each other.  This is our destiny.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

It's Tax Whine Time Again

Matt Yglesias pointed out a conservative argument for keeping taxes annoying in order to remind people to dislike the government.

I understand that people have philosophical disagreements about what we should pay for the government to do. Lord knows I do.

But complaining about taxes strikes me as the worst sort of whiny, pig-headedness. We are a socialist democracy (despite most people's apparent ignorance of the term). We have a democratic government that regulates a free market. Everyone but the kranks agree on this. Therefore we have to pay taxes.

We want military, police, firemen, schools, libraries, roads, parks, safety regulations, etc. I am god-damned proud to contribute my share to live in one of the greatest social and political eras in history. I don't like it that half our budget goes to defense. But to sit around bitching and moaning about taxes is pathetic.

The behavioral argument over implementation is retarded. While being frustrated and annoyed might push people to not want to pay for government, it also pushes them to not want to pay for government.

I hate the fact that we don't have universal healthcare. I hate the fact that our schools are overcrowded, and the poor ones don't have the resources to end generational poverty. I hate the fact that there aren't better public parks. I hate the fact that there isn't better enforcement of regulations. I hate the fact that our transportation infrastructure is miserable. I hate the fact that there is little public funding of the arts (especially in schools). I hate the fact that scientists don't have adequate funding (especially in areas with no predictable return on investment). I hate the fact that we don't have high-speed transit in every large metropolitan area.

NONE of those things will ever get done by the private market. They can ONLY be done by taxes. I have no reason to believe that reducing taxes will grow the economy enough to pay for any of it. I'm no economist, but that sounds absurd on its face. What seems more likely is that it is simply a way of justifying not paying for programs that you don't want. I mean, when was the last time you had someone suggest cutting taxes to pay for a new bomber?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Great Convinced: Voting From The Middle

I suppose having been a youngish 25 years old at the time offers some excuse for political delusion, but my vote for Nader was ill-conceived. Although living in Portland, OR I didn’t really effect the actual election much.  Gore won by a considerable margin.

Today I see too many people suffer the same misunderstanding of politics. The Democrats are only as liberal as their most conservative members. This has proven true on health care, and will continue to dog them as long as there remains a large portion of Americans who don’t understand political philosophy well enough to not be caught in an endless sway between the rhetorical legerdemain of focus group-tested messaging and Pavlovian talking points.

The American middle is a morass of ignorant nonchalance, dragging us all down to its common denominator of political and social stagnation.  The right and left may be just as delusional or misinformed, but at least they are trying to take a stand for something.  How many among us seem as though they could easily vote Democratic or Republican if someone just spent enough time convincing them. 

The Great Convinced just want to get along.  Which is fine if you're deciding on party decorations, or where to grab a bite.  But shouldn't a basic duty of every citizen in a democracy be to take responsibility for their privileged membership of a free society and at least try to do a little research on why one might think what they think. 

That is if they plan on voting.  And they do.  But they swing wildly from one party to another.  Is the candidate handsome?  Does she read the right books?  Does she seem like a nice person?  Does he drive a truck?  One gets the feeling that American democracy is little more than a glorified student election, in which whoever can come up with the nicest font or funniest joke wins the prize.

There are tremendous differences between the two major parties.  And while I'm sure there are many individuals for whom single issues like abortion or gay rights pull them in opposing internal directions.  But I think the majority of independent-minded voters aren't actually very :"minded" at all, basing their vote instead on superficial impressions of a candidate's personality or fancy sloganeering.

So all of this seems rather cynical.  And it is.  But the practical take-away in all of this may be that if we want America to be the vibrant electorate that it deserves, we need to continue to encourage our friends and neighbors into actively reflecting on their lives, whether by direct conversation or simply through the slow and steady emphasis on thoughtfulness in daily life - the books we read, the movies we watch, the ways in which we choose to engage ourselves.

But Republicans Don't WANT to Reform Health Care

And this is premised on far more profound disagreements than budgetary concerns. Let me put it this way, if the millions of Americans without healthcare were Al Queda, they would have built an extra wing on to the Pentagon devoted to them and got Lockheed Martin on the phone ASAP.

But they blame these people for their own "failure" (to borrow Glenn Beck's eloquence). Just like they blame anyone who might need social services. They know the "market" can't guarantee these people the help they need. That is their point. They don't deserve our help. 


Modern "Progressive" Education Reform: Union-Busting

Progressive education reform these days seems like an oxymoron.  Or, at least what is being touted by many otherwise progressives as education reform is not very progressive at all.  A good portion of the rhetoric places an emphasis on teacher accountability and a turn towards charter schools.  What this often ends up meaning is union-busting.  The complaint is that teachers unions are holding back schools by protecting bad teachers, and charter schools, because they are so often non-union, are thus able to present the way forward.  Unions are an anachronism and without them the detritus of bad teaching will disappear, allowing administrators, whose intent is only to help the children, will be free to do their job.

This is absurd.   Teachers are at a disadvantage to administrators by definition, and any employer is potentially oppressive.  Why on earth would a school be any different?  There are any number of examples of how teachers get mistreated routinely (too many prep-periods, unsanitary classrooms, unannounced scheduling changes, feckless discipline follow-through, poor communication, unwarranted and ineffective professional development and curriculum mandates, just to name a few).  And this isn't even getting into capricious or malicious treatment.

Schools are not like regular job environments.  The main difference is simply the level of personal sacrifice and professionalism that is required as part of the job.  In return, teachers have fought for and won certain privileges.

No one wants bad teaching.  I don't want it for my kids or anyone else's.  But effective solutions must be considered in the context of the realities of teaching.  It must also be said that this is especially true with respect to teaching in poor schools, where the environment can be downright hostile due to a variety of socioeconomic reasons.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Life of A Sheep

Sara Palin is coming under fire for promoting herself as an advocate for disability rights, as the mother of a son with down-syndrome, yet positioning herself against state assistance for families of the disabled, much less the just plain needy.  This is nothing new to conservatives, who have often had to actually had to place the word "compassionate" in their titular ideology, in case one got the wrong impression from their policy perspective.

Trying to decipher the personality differences of conservatives vs. liberals is fascinating, if frustratingly difficult.  There are obviously differences, not only in one's temperament itself but in its larger political philosophy implications.

The best, most scientific examination of this is in The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer.  He finds a lot of very interesting correlations between authoritarianism and current right-wing politics.  He writes that right-wing authoritarians are capable of holding very high levels of contradictory thought.  They are frequently religious fundamentalists.  If empathy is based in part on actually experiencing life in another's shoes, any movement that actively limits one's ability to understand the lives not exactly like theirs, or thoughts not exactly like theirs (this is sometimes proudly referred to as "common sense"), would have a net decrease in empathy.

I imagine it as a sheep that only sees its little green pasture, and so when forced to peep its head out of the fence, it has no context for anything else in its world.  The analogy here would be the white, Christian, "American", traditional gender, etc., etc. type who doesn't really understand other people or cultures - either because they haven't been exposed to them or have actively ignored them (I think it is usually both). 

Those of us who live outside this narrow cultural perspective, or at least have spent our lives trying not to - both by reflecting on the political & cultural implications of having that group be so dominant and by learning about other ways of life, are almost liberal by definition.  This relativistic conceit drives us to continually explore history, science, politics, religion, the arts, etc. from an objective and values-neutral position. 

And this is exactly the critique that you get from right wing authoritarians: that we are too "soft"; that we need to see the world as it "really is" (in black and white), that we make up our morals as we go along; that we make excuses for everyone (we call them explanations for behavior); that we are elitists who look down on provincialism (it's hard not to, once you have left the "province"); that we don't believe in individual responsibility (the whole point was that we began to deconstruct what "individual" really means).

This week on Frontline they ran a very interesting story on the fundamentalist Taliban and Mujaheddin, told from the inside by a reporter with special access.  What became clear was how just how insular they were.  The most motivated among them were indeed "true believers".  The sort of pinnacle of excellence was a single-minded devotion to an entirely specific way of life.  The concept of learning about new things and reflecting upon why they were who they were was anathema to their project. 

Yet one could easily see how powerful this mindset is to the success of a cause.  Free thinking and questioning of authority would be a grave threat.  This is a common feature of cults.  One of the first things required of a new cult member is limited communication with the outside world.  Right wing authoritarians, defined as they are by strict obedience to tradition and fear of the outside, would fall perfectly into this category of thought.

A word popular on the left right now is Christianist, describing just this sort of fundamentalist Christian thinking.  Sarah Palin, along with most of the current Republican leadership, falls directly into this category.  The Tea Party movement, while not specifically religious at all, is of an ideological kin to Christianism.  There is certainly some friction between the two groups in that a good portion of the Tea Partiers are staunchly secular libertarians who want not of the Christianist preaching.  It will be interesting to see how they come to terms with their common ground of angry white nativism, anti-government and pro-traditionalism.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who Else Will Do It?

My response to the main appeal of libertarianism - that government is just consistently inefficient, if not in a sense corrupt, is the same response that I think most people have: how else would the same job get done?

If the answer is that it could be done by the private market, I have no problem with that, and actually prefer it. But the problem is that so often times it can't be done by the private market. I mean, who else if not the EPA is going to try and protect the environment? To the extent that businesses are able to police themselves out of a moral sense, or even just market pressures to behave cleanly, that's great.

But of course there will always be businesses don't act responsibly, and in fact have a profit incentive not to.

What is more, as the environment is a common, there ought to be democratic input as to what level of damage we allow it to endure. In this way, Libertarianism ends up being opposed to the common freedom. Just as would the idea that there should be no police protecting us at night or firefighters putting out our neighbor's fires.

Frankly, I find libertarian philosophy incoherent: as soon as you concede that government should play some role, then very quickly you are no longer a libertarian but a democratic socialist.  The only question has become not whether government, but how much?  And unfortunately, this is not an argument you generally get on policy from libertarians or conservatives.  Instead, you get all sorts of appeals to broader philosophical principles, which in the end amount to little more than anarchy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Morally Relative Right

Gen. David Petraeus argued against the use of torture today on Meet The Press:
 I have always been on the record, in fact, since 2003, with the concept of living our values.  And I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside.  We decided early on in the 101st Airborne Division we're just going to--look, we just said we'd decide to obey the Geneva Convention, to, to move forward with that.  That has, I think, stood elements in good stead....  Because in the cases where that is not true, we end up paying a price for it ultimately.  Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables.  They don't go away.  The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick in the Central Command area of responsibility.  Beyond that, frankly, we have found that the use of the interrogation methods in the Army Field Manual that was given, the force of law by Congress, that that works.
Sounds reasonable to me, especially given the great likelihood it simply doesn't work anyway.  Unfortunately, modern conservatism has embraced the Cheney model on torture.  A long-standing critique on the right has been the left's supposed moral relativism.  I think that accusation is actually wrong, but I'll get to that in a minute.   What's really bizarre to me is that contemporary conservatism gets about as close to moral relativism as you'd find.  I know very few people who would agree with the premise: different people have different morals and so it is wrong to criticize someone else's behavior, even if you disagree with it. 

Many liberals are sensitive to the fact that those with power have often taken advantage of other peoples in the name of righteous moral authority when in reality all they were doing is justifying their own sick fantasies of domination and exploitation.  But you'd be hard-pressed to find any liberal who actually believes that it is OK for someone else to do something that he himself considers wrong.  He may not want to start a war over it, but he'll still oppose it on principle.

The right, especially in its Christianist form, has often confused this proper definition of moral relativism with the empirical fact that human morality is relative to human thought; i.e. we decide our own morality.  While the general universality of human cultural morality is indicative of common biological and cultural structures, the existence of many nuanced moral beliefs is a testament to a relativity.  I think the confusion lies in the fundamentalist belief in absolute moral truths as handed down from God, specifically via biblical teaching. 

And yet here we find the purest example of people who could truly be considered relativists in the proper sense: because American superiority is ordained by God, then basically whatever we can claim to do in the name of America is morally correct.  The bible doesn't specifically forbid using "enhanced interrogation" on your enemies, and because doing so could be rationalized as good for America, then it is perfectly acceptable.  The moral has become entirely subjective to the interpretive whims of he who acts in God's name. 

This was always the problem with the fundamentalist argument for absolute morality.  Even if an absolute existed, it would still have to be revealed somehow to man.  And yet we end up right back at the beginning: stuck trying to decide which interpretation of the divine is correct.  And aside from actually experiencing some clairvoyant direct line to God, we're forced to use reason. 

Karen Armstrong refers to fundamentalists being left to "practice poor reason & poor religion", in that the one inevitably interferes with the other.  In this way, those who take a fundamentalist approach to American identity and morality will essentially be practicing poor reason and poor patriotism.

Stubborn Ignorance or Dishonesty?, cont.

On another site, a commenter left me this remark regarding the original post:

Putting together a car engine will never be as distinguished as reading Plato. In any society. One is physical. One is mental. One the body. One the mind. One is active. One is reflective. One animal. One transcendent.

I’ll have to disagree that this would be the case in any society and suggest that this statement itself reflects the bias of a Platonic worldview in which some things are prioritized over other things. Mind over body. The supposedly eternal over the changing and the ephemereal. The purely theoretical over the practical. The list could go on. If you’re a Platonist in your philosophical outlook, it’s easy to see why you would view this as a necessary fact of any society. But not everybody is a Platonist, and it is possible to imagine a society where being a skilled car mechanic is just as valued as being a professor of philosophy.

My response:
I think that’s a good point. I considered for a moment – maybe I should have spent more. And it is ironic that I used Plato as an example!

I guess to just back up a bit, there is abstract/complicated work and there is physical/simple work. Realize I’m being incredibly general here to try and establish a spectrum. There is plenty of physical labor that requires an enormous amount of not only finesse but contextual understanding, just as there are plenty of college graduates who’s work requires very little skill or thought at all.

But at the macro-level, societies tend to devalue working-class labor, and value upper-class labor, which is generally defined as limited manual labor and maximum intellectual skill. I’m the first to agree that this evaluation has much less to do with actual value than other socio-economic and cultural factors. And this is where the real roots of class resentment come in.

In theory, you could have an egalitarian society in which the lowly worker was valued just as much as the pencil-pusher. That was the whole point of communism (ironic, in today’s climate of working-class conservatism). But it’s just so damn complicated to untangle it all!

As a teacher, my greatest philosophical quibble is always the notion that “every child should go to college”. Even allowing the conceit that this might include a quality trade school, there is still the problem that our current economic structure simply couldn’t exist within that egalitarian framework. To put it simply: someone has to clean the toilets!

Of course, the teacher’s goal is always to have every child succeed, any teacher in a poor neighborhood sees that not only does this not happen, but there are numerous social factors at play in actively maintaining inequity. To use another simple phrase: shit rolls downhill.

Now, I think we’re making progress. I’m really excited about all the data piling up on what goes in to creating a robust and successful citizen – and just as importantly, what actively prohibits it. I’m confident that in time, the evidence will eventually reach the larger social consensus required to find the right social structure. Europe is obviously way ahead of America, beholden as we are to primitive religio-economic mysticism.

I think we can eventually offer each citizen a guaranteed baseline level of education and life experiences: a sort of “man is born free + 18 years” that public education was always supposed to promise. But it’s going to take a lot more than simply giving every kid 1/30th of a teacher, 6 hours a day, 180 days out of a year.
Publish Post

Maybe one day the idea of a Plato-reading toilet cleaner able to support a happy family in a nice neighborhood won’t seem so far-fetched.

Stubborn Ignorance or Dishonesty?

I've been thinking a lot lately about political dialogue, and specifically where to draw the line when choosing to engage. 

It seems reasonable that in order to have an honest debate, the opponent needs to either, A) Understand the legitimate premise of your viewpoint, or, B) Admit that they don't and thus make a good faith attempt at understanding why you believe what you believe.  Only then can we critique one another's assumptions and present opposing opinions.

So, an absurdly popular right wing argument right now is that Democratic spending is out of control (mainly TARP & ARRA), with no mention of either the Keynesian or emergency basis to either plan.  The idea is simply an extension of the usual conservative opposition to government social spending, as if the financial crisis never happened, as if the bank bailout wasn't an emergency attempt to shore up an imminently collapsing banking system, as if the stimulus wasn't entirely based on Keynesian economic assumptions.

So one either knows these things or one doesn't.  To not mention them is then either ignorant or plainly intellectually dishonest.  At this point, the vast majority of conservative commentary I hear falls squarely into one or the other camp.  The real wackos seem to just be ignorant - which would explain much of their vitriol.  (Glenn Beck at CPAC today argued that failure would have been a good thing because we need the "freedom to fail" in order to learn to do what is right.  How his self-help gobbledy-gook applies to an over-leveraged financial market upon which our entire economy hangs in the balance is beyond me.) But the more calm and reasonable figures I'm guessing are just being dishonest.

If Keynes was right, then the stimulus was too small if anything, according to what his model predicts.  If he was wrong, then by all means explain to the mainstream of economists that has generally accepted his theories.  If bailing out the banks was a bad idea, explain why doing nothing would have been the better option - when most estimates also widely agree that a domino effect would have brought our economy) if not the world's) to its knees? 

Why waste time with someone who is either being dishonest or won't take the time to try and understand where you are coming from?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Low Class Warfare

A common refrain on the right has long been a denunciation of the "elitist" liberals' views because of their penchant for wine & cheese (consumed, one supposes while discussing the idiocy of redneck culture).  What's weird about this attack is how screwy the logic is.  But its staying power is a testament to its "truthiness".

So, a working-class conservative appeal is to the feeling of being looked down upon.  Ancient stuff, been around since the dawn of time.

One would imagine then, that those who do the looking-down-upon are from an upper class.  (And lets remind ourselves here that "class" doesn't really mean income, but a certain "cultural capital": plenty of hillbillies are upper-middle class and plenty of college graduates are lower middle class).  This upper class is then defined by its traits - generally an interest in "distinguished" music, clothes, food, entertainment, etc.

So the attack is then set up thus: pick an upper class trait for maximum rhetorical effect and then describe those who would look down on you thusly.

A-ha!  What do you know!  They do seem to have those traits!  Funny thing is, how could they not?  In order to look down on a class, you must be of another, higher class.

Now, lower class people have always looked down on the upper classes.  Except we can't really call it that, right?  When they walk into the rural bar in their clean, well appointed attire, nails trimmed and obviously "not from around here".  Just what is it that makes them seem so god-damned faggoty?!!  Yet, realize at this point, they haven't done anything.  They probably feel a tad awkward.  Certainly not comfortable being stared at (who is?).  No, they're just kind of "existing".  And that may be plenty, in an abstract sense.  But not in any kind of humane, or moral sense.

Class injustice isn't pretty.  It would be nice if we could all say we came from the same background, had all read the same books, had the same sets of skills, etc.  Putting together a car engine will never be as distinguished as reading Plato.  In any society.  One is physical.  One is mental.  One the body.  One the mind.  One is active.  One is reflective.  One animal.  One transcendent.

This has always been the blunt cudgel from which populist appeal attacks.  It is based in resentment.  In hatred.  In anger and fear.  These are politically powerful emotions.  If you can harness them to your cause, your ideas no longer need to persuade, they simply seem true.

So the fact that the liberal drinks lattes suddenly seems proof that what she believes in is wrong!  No matter that her ideas may have nothing to do with her class.  If they become associated with that which you feel has been denied you, that you feel scorned for, then certainly they must be wrong.

Because someone out there is looking down on you, and that person must also be drinking a latte.  And listening to world music.  And watching foreign films.  And living a life that by its very definition is mocking you.

Of course it is all bullshit. Just because someone is a plumber and didn't take college courses doesn't mean their ideas are wrong.  And just because someone went to college doesn't mean their ideas are right.  But the resentment is still there.  And so as a political strategy, it works.  Things can be simplified.  And rhetoric loves simplification.  The difficulty between complex political and cultural philosophy can be distilled into a simple: Us vs. Them.  "Real" Americans and well, "fake" Americans, I guess.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Are we really not going to pass health care?  Have that many people really bought into the private-market-as-savior mythology?

Makes me think it might take a reverse starve the beast to get people to wake up: wait until the government is so broke we end up with a Libertariopia.  Its slowly happening in CA, where the state is forcing cuts in social spending.  Class sizes are hitting forty now.  Maybe once they get to 50 we'll be rid of public education once and for all.  I mean, what's the point of educating the poor if they're just going to end up in the fields anyway?

I mean, after we've built our electric border fence and conducted mass immigration raids.

Terrorist Rhetoric

Since the IRS bombing there's been a question as to what the motivations were.  To what extent they were political or just plain crazy?

I've had a difficult time parsing this one myself.  Obviously he was a bit nuts.  So was the Tiller shooter.  So was the Ft. Hood shooter.  While there does appear to be an obvious political dimension to their acts, they were lone wolves - not connected to a larger orchestrated plot.  They were not members of Al Queda, the IRA, Hamas, etc.

But does terrorism have to be directly connected to a parent organization?  Couldn't individuals, acting with an intent that correlates with the larger stated aims of a political movement, be considered terrorists?  And even if that movement had no organization yet committed to violence?  Timothy Mc Veigh would fit into this category.  He was obviously bred from the rhetoric of a an anti-government movement.  There are still many militias that, while not quite plotting anything specific, are organized around a belief in the illegitimacy of the federal government and the prospects of armed resistance.

The real problem seems to me not to be whether this was an act of terrorism - I think it was - but the degree to which it was inspired by inflammatory rhetoric from the right.  There are certainly many principled right-wing arguments to be made.  This act is in no way an indictment of them.  But it is an indictment of the language used both to give a certain contemporary context for those principles, and suggestions as to how one ought to react to them.  An interesting example of this is Scott Brown's reaction to the event.  I don't see him as having a particularly radical right-wing perspective, but someone who obviously took advantage of the populist right-wing momentum and messaging.  Here he is responding to Cavuto:
..I don't know if it's related but I can just sense not only in my election but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated. They want transparency. They want their elected officials to be accountable and open and talk about the things that are affecting their daily lives. So I'm not sure if there's a connection there. I certainly hope not...
Now, he's obviously not condoning the act.  But he is expressing sympathy for the narrative that the bomber apparently acted from.  He's literally making the man's case for him post-mortem.  He calls for transparency and accountability - reasonable enough claims, but two issues that have been specific right-wing critiques of the Obama administration and inflated so as to trump up the more conspiratorial claims of government illigitimacy. 

I'm not aware of any pundit explicitly calling for violence.  But are many examples of inflammatory rhetoric on the right that all but call for outright armed revolution.  The language that many of the more radical pundits use is rife with evocations of a struggle that would seem to legitimize the use of violent force.  The most popular among them, Glenn Beck, consistently refers to "tyranny", "rising up", "taking back the country", and ultimately evoking again and again the narrative of the founders revolting violently against the British, our present situation being assumedly very similar.

This is a serious allegation, and runs the risk of delegitimizing honest political speech by casting unfair aspersions.  But again, this in no way argues that right-wing critiques are necessarily incorrect.  But the framing, and language used can certainly cross the line, and when it does it would not be unfair to wonder whether it might end up promoting violent behavior.  This happened on the left 40 years ago.  And certainly there was language and framing used during the bush years that crossed a line.  But the difference is not necessarily in the language used - although I would argue that being used on the right today is often times much worse.  It is in the media landscape.  The radical, violent rhetoric is not limited to a radical fringe.  It is coming from leading conservative figures, sometimes even members of congress.

In the Tiller case, the shooter likely believed that Tiller was a murderer.  The rhetoric on the anti-abortion right is that of mass-murder.  If this is true, then armed resistance seems a reasonable response.  The American revolution was a reasonable response to what was the very definition of tyranny.  Were that to be the case today, then violent revolt could be justified.  But of course, to reasonable people, we are experiencing nothing like tyranny.

The language being used - one would hope - is often for dramatic effect, not to accurately describe reality.  When pressed, these pundits will usually back-peddle and explain that they were merely being hyperbolic.  Yet unfortunately for many, listening day in and day out and who may not get their news from any other sources, the narrative becomes the reality.  This is evidenced by interviews with attendees at Sara Palin book signings and Tea party rallies, many of who hold signs parroting a literal interpretation of the "hyperbolic" language.  When one of them finally decides to pick up a gun, bomb, or plane and do something, well, it shouldn't surprise us.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Determinism and Social Justice

Julian Sanchez had a great post on free will on his on his blog last year, in which he generally argues from a compatibilist perspective, while making the point that referring to free will as an "illusion" misses the point:
But to call these things an “illusion of free will” just seems like a mistake.  It is as if someone had told me for the first time about subatomic theory, and I mused that I nevertheless have this illusion of a solid desk chair, when after all, it is really these clouds of quarks and whatnot. And this would be silly: The parameters of “solid” and “desk chair” are given by ordinary life, and within those bounds the chair is exactly as solid as it ever was.
I think this is right.  How could an illusion be an illusion?  But I think we generally have a realistic believe that something like free will exists, and then make decisions as if it does, which we would not have made otherwise.  This is not the case with the "illusion" of solid objects.  Whether or not I understand the molecular forces at wok in my apple has no bearing on whether or not I eat it.  Although I am reminded of the story of the woman who, upon witnessing for the first time the bacteria inhabiting her mouth via an early microscope, promptly had her teeth removed.

What seems important to me to emphasize is the disconnect from how we approach retribution emotionally, and how we should instead understand it from a utilitarian perspective.

I think the problem is in degrees.  An angry man outside an execution calling for blood highlights the broad spectrum of human emotional response to "justice".  Should the convict be killed (or possibly tortured - you could argue our current prison system is quite tortuous), or should he be locked away, yet with compassion?  Or in the case of positive behaviors, if the goals are ostensibly the same (appealing to him and others), how many riches should the well-behaved, successful man be allowed?

I think these questions go to the core of the schism between modern liberalism & conservatism.  Most conservatives will emphasize the man's role in determining his life, "Who cares how bad his childhood was?!!!"  While liberals will emphasize the role of society, "Look at the demographic disparities in life success!!!"

There is still a basic human desire for justice.  When we stub our toe on a misplaced chair we will still want to kick it.  But was it responsible, or whomever moved it?  Certainly not to the degree that we feel momentarily driven to punish it.  We must chasten our responses in order to find a justice that promotes both social prosperity and fairness.  If most people cannot simply "choose" to be rich and successful, how fair is it to reward those who do, even as a sort of "carrot" for the rest of us to emulate similar - assumedly dignified -  behavior?.  Likewise if most of us cannot simply "choose" to rape, murder, cheat or steal, how fair is it to punish those who do, even as a "stick" for the rest of us to fear.

So as a matter of degree, we can both be responsible for our actions, and ultimately not responsible.  We can live in the micro-, yet structure law and order around the macro-.  We can create prisons that are uncomfortable enough that no one should ever want to be sent to one, but are not torturous hells.  And we can progressively tax individuals who have demonstrated good behaviors so that they enjoy a comfortable enough lifestyle that should entice us all to be our best, yet not so much that while there are common goods that need to be provided for by a government.

Health Care Fantasy

Health care is often described as a "market".  But I think this is wrong.  How could anything like a market exist when some people are going to have life experiences that make them 100x more costly than others? If we compared health care insurance to auto, life, house, or other forms of insurance, it would be like certain people living in houses on fire, or driving cars with broken steering wheels that continually crash into other vehicles!

The reason we get around this today seems to be that there are structural systems that manage risk. The first would be employee pools, next pre-existing conditions, and finally just really high insurance costs. But such a system depends on a high degree of callousness. Those in fields where no employee pool exists, or the where wages don’t support it are kicked out. Then those with a pre-existing condition are left out. Finally those who can’t afford it are left out. And here we arrive at the high level of uninsured, those who don’t get medical treatment, and those who simply die.

To me this comes down to basic morality. We as a society can afford to cover everyone. Maybe more clumsily, but adequately. Our taxes will be higher, but our economic system won’t collapse. It hasn’t in every other Western country that guarantees some form of universal HC. Yet we choose not to. Throughout history societies have chosen different levels of compassion, having decided on different moral standards. Our American system of health care right now depends upon on tolerating a certain level of human suffering.
This is a moral determination. All sorts of fancy economic or philosophical reasoning is put forth. But in the end it seems a simple matter of morality. Yet one that also seems to depend (as limited compassion usually does), on a failure to empathize because of a failure to witness. Few people would argue that we deny people access to emergency rooms, should they not be able to pay. Yet having no insurance isn’t much different. Yet the situation is less clear-cut. It happens on calm afternoons, when medications are not picked up from pharmacies, when problems go undiagnosed, when bills pile up and homes are quietly foreclosed. The story becomes part of that elusive tapestry of unacknowledged, unwitnessed poverty.

It is here that the sweeping philosophical and economic rationalizations for our current system reside. Here in this emotional vacuum the specifics and details crumple into dust beneath grand gestures. The human lives that hang in the balance are absent. They cannot enter, for they would immediately disrupt the natural symmetry between our present system and a most basic level of human sympathy. In this way it is not that opponents of HCR are without compassion, but that they must actively disengage from the reality of their position’s consequence.

Monday, February 15, 2010


A criticism of Obama is that he simply hasn't stepped up to the plate; that he is too cerebral; that he is a lover not a fighter.  The main concern is usually that he hasn't been enough of a leader on health care, and thus largely responsible for its current purgatory.  I think other issues would be pulled in to buttress the overriding lament.  DADT, until recently was infuriating some, escalation in Afghanistan bothered others, Guantanamo continues to be thorn in the side.

The coherent vision is of an Obama administration that is afraid of getting out in front of anything.  Yet the reality seems far from it.  Of course, if HCR were passed, Obama would be hailed as brilliant, regardless of whether it was politically feasible.  What people seem to return to over and over, is a sense of frustration that Obama hasn't just waved his magic wand and produced the "change" they apparently "believed in".  But do they really think the president has that much power?

I've never understood the idea of "cheerleader-in-chief".  I'm suspicious that what people are really saying when they complain that Obama isn't being "tough enough" is that they are angry that what they want isn't happening, but because accepting that the causes are complex (voter ignorance, ideology, lobbying, punditry, electoral politics, etc.) just isn't very emotionally satisfying, they take the intellectually lazy approach of finger pointing. 

I could very well be wrong.  Maybe there are some really good points to be made as to what exactly Obama could have done to get the needed representative & senate votes.  But I haven't heard any.  Incoherent fear and anger in politics is nothing new - what would the Tea Party movement be without it?  But it seems like the immature child to democracy's wise parent.  There are real problems, but pretending they have easy solutions seems nothing but a distraction.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Island of Thought

Our absurdly large amount of defense spending, and the fact that Republicans rarely criticize it (where are you Ron Paul?!!), is fascinating to me.  Especially because it presents such a good refutation for many conservative arguments about big government. 

Basically, if they don't believe in a government program, they say the "market" can do it better.  Yet if they believe in it, the fact that the market can't is simply assumed.  So, the silliness of relying on a private military to protect every citizen is off the table.  Yet expecting private health care, parks, libraries, schools, mental health services, forestry, etc., etc. to guarantee equal access doesn't seem silly at all.

It seems fundamentally childish to not accept that in a democracy we have different preferences, yet this is what conservatives are always arguing.  Defense spending = good, everything else is socialist pork.  Yet liberals could just as easily make the exact opposite argument.  To the extent that liberals don't, at the risk of sounding superior, I honestly feel that it is a simple lack of chauvinism on the part of liberals.  In fairness, this ad hominem suggestion has less to do with an innate character flaw in modern conservatives, but that the conservative philosophy deprives from those who accept it many of the means of thought from which temperate, reasoned thinking is derived.  The absolutist nature of conservative thought is contrary to the relativist aspects of liberalism, thereby always pushing it into a didactic posture of defensiveness.  Not only is the philosophical trajectory one of enormous self-infatuation, but it puts the self in the position of always having to put up a "fight".  In other words, "I am right, therefore you are wrong and a threat to me."

Conservatives have much more difficulty with heterogeneity.  Certainly on an individual level, with regard to specific issues, they can be very "tolerant".  But it is no coincidence that the most boorish, chauvinist opinions are always found in higher levels on the right.  Pick any social issue and you'll find a tendency toward myopia, not plurality. 

This is of course, conservatism's strength.  Conservatism is frequently exactly what is needed to temper liberalism's more dangerously deconstructive tendencies.  But to the extent that its insular traditionalism is its weakness, it can make for a very undemocratic political and social conversation.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Magic of Science

A friend of mine found this old Disney clip on what life could be like on other planets.  He described it as a time when Disney "oozed magic".

It made me wonder where that magic came from?  And where did it go?  If you go back to the first half of the 20th century, there seemed to be a much more naive, yet emotionally-charged connection to science.  We certainly had reason to become more jaded about its possibilities.  But it feels like at the same time we gave something up in our sobriety.

The 60's counter-culture certainly embraced an anti-scientism, ostensibly associating it with the repressed, corporate mindset they sought to escape.  This primitivism is still found today in the continued proliferation of "natural" health food stores selling such quackery as homeopathic remedies, cure-all vitamin supplements and a generally didactic embrace of the good life as defined as being against mass-production, technology and engineering.  Chemistry and genetic modification are necessarily bad, even though most shoppers probably could not tell you the difference between DNA and RNA.  The point is that it is abstract and scary, and most of all done by large organizations in far away places.

This is the same logic of those who oppose vaccines.  Never mind the more conspiratorial theories about "government" plots, nor the ample evidence that vaccines are not only overwhelmingly safe but vital as part of a comprehensive strategy to eliminate common diseases.  One goes out on a limb in these areas but a case can be made that there seems to be a subconscious fear (isn't there always) of not only needles but authority in general, and elites in particular.  "Who do they think they are, with all their fancy "learnin'!"  Who among those opposed to vaccination really understands what memory T cells are, and the basics of immunology.  This cartoon from the Anti-Vaccine Society was drawn in 1802.  It depicts the likely results from Edward Jenner's small-pox vaccine, which he derived from the pus of cows' known to be resistant to the disease.  As you can clearly see, the shots produce bovine features.
 None of this is to say that science and technology cannot be used for terrible ill.  There is no need here to go into the obviously horrendous things that have happened either through malice or misunderstanding, which were amplified by scientific means.  We must surely always be vigilant.

But who are we if not scientific animals?  Descartes wrote, "I think, therefore I am."  In sorting out where to begin a philosophical understanding of the mind, that was as good a foundation as any.  We look out at the world - and then notice that we do.  Waves of light, sound and feeling reach into our heads, we process them, then send out our own.  In our brief history of scientific thought, we have already learned so much, and yet learned how much we do not know.  Science is the only thing capable of letting us peer into distant galaxies, or into the inner-workings of our cellular DNA.  It shows us not only what the universe is made of, but what it is capable of being made into.  In a word, it is magic.

IQ and Social Predictions

A new study reported in the New York Times today finds a link between IQ and Heart Disease.  The story then pretty much runs with a causation, not correlation interpretation.  Many commenters quickly fall in behind the narrative, assuming it confirms their own suspicions about IQ and success.  One assumes they are aware of the disparities in IQ scores among racial and socio-economic groups.  If one buys into the notion that these differences are caused by low IQ, and not the other way around, then this story certainly makes sense.

The pattern with stories like this is often the same: the reporter presents a skeleton of the study, minus the finer details of how it was performed (controls, variables, etc.).  The authors of the studies themselves are rarely interviewed, and generally in little depth.  The bigoted reader is then free to fit the story into their preconceived narrative, based as it is on false premises.  It is not political correctness which dismisses the bell curve model, but good old fashioned science. 

The idea that poor and minority people are genetically inferior is an excellent way of conveniently explaining away social inequities, thus liberating us from any sense of obligation to correct them.  The more difficult yet morally and intellectually honest approach begins with an examination of the ways in which privilege and disadvantage have worked against the American dream of freedom, and how they continue to today. 

The first casualty will likely one's sense that they are who they are today because of sheer self-determination.  Statistically, a few outliers succeed against the odds, but overwhelmingly it is factors such as one's parent's education level, income and family health (mental & physical) that are by far the most meaningful determinants.

The debate over what IQ scores measure and what they do not is complex.  For a good primer I encourage everyone to take a look at Stephanie Zvan's "Readings on IQ and Intelligence".

Monday, February 8, 2010

Merit Pay is Nothing New

Merit pay, or pay-for-performance, along with charter schools and standardized testing, is one of the key platforms of today's education reformers, among them senior Obama cabinet officials like Arne Duncan.  As I've written about earlier, even taken as a group these so-called reforms are laughably inadequate to truly address the fundamental problems in American education.

In order to do merit pay, you need to have data on teacher effectiveness.  But therein lies the problem: teacher-effectiveness models must be treated with extreme caution.  In order to be fair, they must be accurate.  And how you get accurate data is a problem that has always plagued the concept.  Salary rates are currently not based on effectiveness for precisely this reason.

I was recently flipping through a handbook published in the early sixties for beginning teachers. It was an odd book really, covering everything from pedagogy to budget considerations. The references to segregation were pretty fascinating. But in a section on salary it outlined today’s debate perfectly – stating that the difficulty in pay-for-performance comes in developing an accurate model for what that effectiveness really looks like.
Merit pay be eventually be done right. Although if it isn’t I won’t be too concerned – teachers don’t do it for the money. But the idea that it is going to be an effective element of reform is naive.
That we’ve been having this debate for half a century tells you A)the concept is nothing new and B) it’s a complex issue with no clear solutions.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Politically Correct Politics, cont.: Immigration

I’m not sure if the term“illegal aliens” is offensive.  I think the term “illegals” sure is. It seems to illustrate nicely the view that the crime of being here illegally is something warranting an objectification of one’s humanity. We obviously don’t have names for people who jay-walk, owe back taxes, etc.

The arguments for the social/economic costs of illegal immigration are objectively zero-sum, at least enough in my mind to see it as little more than a nuisance, yet one that deteriorates rapidly into folks displaying nativist racism of the oldest and ugliest sort. Of course this is never admitted, as it is most likely located in the unconscious, an area of the racism spectrum most difficult to identify and describe. But high levels of correlation between behaviors of admitted racists and immigrant-bashers provides a good deal of evidence for its expression.

Historically racism wasn't even considered impolite, so the modern attempts to excuse or justify it behind economic argument seems novel.  Although ironically, it makes grabbing the tiger by the tail that much more difficult as honesty about one's racism has now become taboo.

The difficulty with race seems often that the very people most inclined to hold racist views are those least familiar with the social theory behind its growth. The mechanisms for the expression of “hate” are largely still difficult to pin down – genetic predispositions vs. social normative behavior. But at the very least we have amassed an incredible amount of data on racism throughout history, especially that of the American experience and minority groups.

But when one brings up the possibility of racist expression occurring conservatives get very defensive and respond in a way that makes one wonder just how familiar they are with the area of study.  This makes sense given the likelihood that being informed about the debate might temper one's racism.  But at the same time conservatives are less likely to pursue the sort of self-reflective analysis that is required in a any real study of the issue.

A recent issue of The Week published an excerpt from Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs That (Most) Americans Won’t Do , by Gabriel Thompson.

The surprise is that when I return on Monday, feeling recuperated, I wind up having the hardest day of my brief career in lettuce. Within hours, my hands feel weaker than ever. By quitting time—some 10 hours after our day started—I feel like I’m going to vomit from exhaustion. A theory forms in my mind. Early in the season—say, after the first week—a farmworker’s body get thoroughly broken down. Back, legs, and arms grow sore, hands and feet swell up. A tolerance for the pain is developed, though, and two-day weekends provide just enough time for the body to recover from the trauma. My four-day break had been too long; my body actually began to recuperate, and it wanted more time to continue. Instead, it was thrown right back into the mix and rebelled. Only on my second day back did my body recover that middle ground. “I don’t think the soreness goes away,” I say to Manuel and two other co-workers one day. “You just forget what it’s like not to be sore.” Manuel, who’s 37, considers this. “That’s true, that’s true,” he says. “It always takes a few weeks at the end of the year to get back to normal, to recover.”

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Politically Correct Politics

White house chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel called some fellow Democrats retarded. Palin called for his resignation. Then Rush used the term and she demured. Now he says this, which to anyone who has ever listened to the pompous bastard speak is nothing if not mild:
I think the big news is the crackup going on. Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult has taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards.

I mean, these liberal activists are kooks. They are loony tunes. And I'm not going to apologize for it, I'm just quoting Emanuel. It's in the news. I think the news is that he's out there calling Obama's number one supporters effing retards. So now there's going to be a meeting. There's going to be a retard summit at the White House, much like the beer summit between Obama and Gates and that cop in Cambridge.*
I don’t know. I mean, he’s being “politically incorrect”. It’s a term (PC) I loathe, not least because of its ineffability (where do we draw the line, n###er? And why there?). But because ironically it is so often used as a cudgel against legitimate appeals to compassion and/or tolerance. Yes, son, there are things you shouldn’t say. It isn’t a matter of free speech. It’s a matter of respect. You could just as easily express your thoughts in a more appropriate manner.

But at the same time there is a danger in going the other direction. One risks missing out on a certain ribald good-naturedness that only exists in this gray zone between oughts and ought-nots. Here, intent is paramount and context essential. There definitely is something “retarded” about certain behavior that has nothing to do with poking fun at mental retardation, and everything to do with attempting to depict a truth.

I once got in trouble with a friend who he argued that Obama not to be allowed to speak to public school students (yeah, remember that? ). I said I thought his idea was retarded. Maybe if his son was retarded I wouldn’t have said it. Maybe I should have chosen my words more carefully. But was there a better word? As a literal interpretation, you could make a pretty strong case that the idea was indeed philosophically and politically retarded. It was socially retarded. It was dumb. It was idiotic. It was ignorant and insane.

Words have meaning. But that meaning is often dependent upon context. When I read Rush’s transcript I related to his sentiment. I’m fine with us all agreeing that the term is too offensive to use. I try not to say “Hell” around Christians. Good for Sarah Palin if she wants Ramn to shut his Damned mouth. Maybe all of us who sometimes blithely step over the line are being a bit too boorish. But we can discuss these things reasonably. We can recognize the decency in one another while at the same time attempting to see the truth they attempt to reveal.

*putting aside for a moment the simple fact that the "retards" in question are actually the conservative members of the party.  Kind of a... umm... "retarded" thing to say.


Anyone else sick of all the ridiculous tracking shots and perspectives now being done to excess just because the CGI lets them? Matt Yglesias pines for the taught simplicity of Hard Boiled.  Ironically, I think because older filmmakers had less to work with, they were forced to rely upon a wider range of techniques to communicate the action on screen.

Sure, having an 18 wheeler hurling over the actor’s head is exciting, but it can often be too exciting. The viewer may become so over-stimulated that a certain numbness can take hold, limiting emotional penetration. A classic example of this is the film Duel, where with a relatively limited budget Spielberg was able to capture an enormous sense of tension and exhilaration.

Of course, greater technology doesn’t have to mean excess. Duel could probably been enhanced with some CGI here and there. But the point is that the filmmaking must not get lost in the gimmickry adoration of more, at the expense of actual storytelling.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Fox, Hen, Uncle Sam

Some conservative commentators are positing a conspiratorial theory in which the government is unfairly punishing Toyota in order to gain an advantage either indirectly via UAW interests or directly for its majority shareholder stake.  This is largely infantile and intellectually dishonest partisanship.  But it raises the question, does not a government have a conflict of interest in regulating business interests in which it itself has a stake?

This may be a nice pivot in the government/business divide.  The business owner in theory acts out of self-interest.  The government administrator in theory acts out of "common good".  At this point in history, it is obvious now that too much faith in the latter is foolhardy.  The former, owing to basic human nature, is more precise.  Although while business is often well-regulated by either the market or the owner's sense of benevolence, neither are generally up to the task.

The general messiness of all this makes default partisan crankiness on either side all the more disheartening.  Government is in so many ways not only necessary but very well-implemented, if only for the element of honor and sacrifice integral to the particular task at hand - one only needs to think of the cop, the fireman, the teacher, the librarian, the inspector, the researcher, etc.  Yet this is not enough, and corruption must be guarded for structurally.  In the same way the business corruption must be guarded for structurally. 

Ultimately then, government must be relied upon to police both itself as well as business.  The best solution we have to this "fox/henhouse" dilemma is democracy.  And to the extent that democracy fails, so to does government.  Yet how much of our time is spent debating our democratic process?  How well do our citizens know it?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Abortion Terms

I've noticed the term "forced childbirth" being used lately.  Is this a newly popular phrase or is it just me?  I kind of like the reframing, as it appeals to my own position.  But it seems to suffer from the same partisan structure as it's ideological antonyms, "pro-abortion" and "pro-life".  Their definition is based upon a prior definition, thus requiring their truth to be subjective.  So in a way, they are less about stating a truth than a reiteration of the speaker's own position.

The root issue, of course, is how you view the fetus.  I don't see it as much more than a mass of underdeveloped cell tissue.  So I'm fine with abortion as a moral and pragmatic, if inconvenient, solution.  I am not however, pro-abortion, in that I want people to have abortions.  And I am pro-life, in that I am for it(!), based on my definition of when it becomes important. 

("Frogneck Boy", Dan Sabau)

If you believe that "life" (defined at least as something worth protecting) begins at some point before birth, then you likely feel that all abortions are wrong, in all cases.  You are not, however, necessarily in favor of the thought of "forced childbirth".  Nor are you even necessarily opposed to women having the right to decide their own moral position, as you may not feel the authority to make such a bold proclamation yourself.  I know this takes a special type of religious liberalism (honesty?) that is sadly lacking in America.

The nice thing about "anti-abortion" and "pro-choice" is that they are both 100% true, and leave room for ambiguity of meaning.  While maybe not comprehensive definitions, they are perfectly true as far as they go (Who is for abortions?  Well, forget I asked...).  I would actually prefer the terms pro- and anti-choice. because that is I think a clearer description of philosophical intent.  Regardless of how one feels about individual abortions, the degree to which one wants society to prevent them universally is reflected in the use of the term "choice".

A Real Republican Roadmap to Balancing the Budget

Paul Ryan, Republican congressman from Wisconsin and ranking member of the House Budget Committee, has introduced "A Roadmap for America's Future", his alternative budget proposal.  But unlike most other republican proposals, his actually balances the budget.  It does so mainly via steep cuts in social programs, namely a massive cap on Medicare spending.

The basic idea is to give seniors a voucher, which they can then use to purchase health care on the private market.  The way this cuts costs is that this voucher will be substantially lower than what what Medicare currently covers.  Although the program doesn't go into effect until 2020, the annual cost adjustment is far below expected actual increases in health care costs.  What is more, the age of retirement coverage will have risen, further limiting coverage.  What it all amounts to is massively rationing health care for seniors.

The amazing thing about the plan is its intellectual honesty.  It takes a philosophy of limited government - low taxes, low spending - and actually proposes implementing it.  The problem most Republicans face is that their rhetoric has over-reached their policy recommendations.   During the Bush years, tax cuts were made, yet without the painful cuts in spending that would pay for them. 

Republicans, now in the minority, and facing record deficits, seem to have rediscovered fiscal discipline.  Yet to complain about the deficit without proposing steps to actually balance it, is intellectually dishonest.  The ease with which this incongruent rhetoric is employed likely explains much of their current low approval rating.

Interestingly, the Tea Party movement seems to be tremendously popular.  Its main thesis would be very approving of the Ryan proposal.  Yet much of its rhetoric is even more extreme, if somewhat incoherent.  Aside from the demagoguery of Obama, a main theme seems to be the detestation of any form of socialism in government.  This has been largely directed at government involvement in health care - even if many of the Tea Partiers seem to be very attached to their medicare.  But one wonders how far the logic might really extend.  Public schools?  Libraries?  Ostensibly the objection might solely lie with federal government.  But how would state spending on social services be any different.  The same philosophical deference to individualism and markets would seem to apply.

To the extent that republican policy proposals have not adequately matched their rhetoric, they have been difficult to take seriously.  The Ryan plan is honest, and logically consistent.  That its Medicare provisions would not really begin taking effect for 10 years likely reflects the political impracticality of its acceptance.  But at least it is something with which to reasonably debate.