Monday, December 28, 2009

Defending Avatar

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the blockbuster film Avatar in 3D. Although it's difficult for me to sit through a 160-minute film, no matter how captivating it is, I really enjoyed this one, and not just because of the amazing visuals. Of course, it's impossible to see the film without noting the myriad political and social statements that James Cameron makes. Much of the film revolves around humans attempting to exploit the resources of a distant inhabited moon, to the detriment of the native humanoid population there. Earth has become war-torn and devoid of natural resources, so humanity is willing to kill the alien race in order to access the moon's precious minerals.

My friends have been vocal about how transparent these themes are. People seem insulted by the fact that the film hits you over the head with the white guilt concept. I don't mind that so much. What's the merit in making it more subtle? This goes so far as to suggest that James Cameron shouldn't be making movies, because he's white, and that he should step aside and let actual members of oppressed minorities make movies (because apparently they don't). Kind of ridiculous.

Another cool theme in the movie deals with the evils of capitalism. People on Earth were so obsessed with their stock dividends that they didn't care if the corporations they invested in were committing genocide to improve their bottom line.

I also liked the parallels between Avatar and American imperialism. The humans in Avatar used phrases like "stay the course" and "we'll fight terror with terror." In addition, they thought the solution to dealing with the people on the distant moon was to impose our own values and norms on them, when in reality they were perfectly fine with their own lifestyle.

I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Avatar, some subtle and some not-so-subtle. It may not be a sophisticated art film filled with metaphors and symbolism, but it wasn't trying to be that. A lot of its social commentary is very valid, relevant and timely.

Monday, December 21, 2009

High on life, and pot too

Far be it from me to disrespect my Elder, but half his argument rubs me the wrong way — and it's the more important half. While I agree that financial concerns are a bogus excuse for legalizing pot, I'm still very much for legalization.

Now, I'm no pothead. I've tried the ganja, and it doesn't do much for me other than making me sleepy and even nerdier than usual. But I've also seen plenty of people smoke it often with no ill effects, and I can see the appeal. Yes, I've seen it abused; I've seen it be a partial (and I emphasize partial) contributing factor for someone dropping out of college. But a person should generally be allowed, though discouraged, to throw their life away. Besides, in the vast majority of cases, the only side effect of pot is that someone has a fun time.

I'm not Scalia; I don't hide ugly realities behind cold and unrealistic theories. Marijuana can cause problems, and the government should look out for people and give them every opportunity to sidestep addiction. It should finance this by taxing marijuana sales. But at the end of the day, lots of things can end up in suffering: alcohol, cars, marriage, skiing trips — almost everything can end badly, not just for the user but for innocent bystanders. The only way to end all human suffering is to carpet bomb the planet and ensure that there are no humans left.

Whenever the government restricts an action, the onus is on it to show that the wrongness of squashing a person's individual freedom is outweighed by the good of society. Lest I be painted as a libertarian, I'll emphasis that this greater good does often win out. Taxes, murder laws and speed limits are all good examples. I just haven't seen a good argument for why pot is worse than any number of fun things that can end in tragedy. Until that argument is convincingly made, people should be allowed to get high.

Any argument for criminalization would have to factor in the fact that desire for drugs is a biological primative, and that people will always try to get drunk and high. Drugs aren't going away, and criminalizing them will inevitably lead to a crime-run black market, which carries its own social costs. The question isn't just, "is the personal freedom outweighed by the social cost," it's "is the personal freedom plus a social cost outweighed by a different social cost."

For many, many people, pot is a fun time and as harmless as a couple glasses of wine. For a few, it's a problem. Pot should be treated as a public health issue to the extent that it is, but it shouldn't be seen as a criminal issue.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

High controversy

Remember all those stories you heard about how California is going bankrupt? Turns out Gray Davis wasn't the problem so much as an unmanageable, unproductive state government. But with fiscal crisis comes inventiveness. Creative people (read: potheads) are trying to come up with ways to raise money for the state.

Enterprising druggies have been suggesting that the outright legalization (and taxation) of marijuana would go a long way toward alleviating the state's budgetary problems. I guess the argument is that millions of people, desperate to get high, would flock to the Golden State for all their weed-related needs. They would dutifully pay for their pot, and state tax revenues would consequently be higher than Cheech and Chong.

I am skeptical that this would result in a net positive for the state. As the above-referenced article points out, tobacco and alcohol impose tremendous social costs, which likely are not outweighed by the heavy taxation we impose on those products. The same is true of highly carcinogenic and hallucinogenic marijuana. Moreover, a huge influx of drug-seeking tourists may very well create problems of its own.

I am also reluctant to buy the "prohibition-hasn't-been-working-and-thus-should-be-done-away-with" argument. The answer is to fix and refine our drug enforcement techniques, not do away with them completely. Stop searching for and incarcerating recreational drug users. Go after the big producers and traffickers.

The problem in California is more serious than just a lack of revenue-raising measures. The real issue is the state's ineffective constitution, which is wrought with roadblocks that prevent anything from getting done. California needs to restructure their government from the ground up, instead of focusing on piecemeal solutions. The only thing Californians would get out of marijuana legalization is the munchies.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chapter 24: In which we hide how baseless our facts are

I'd like to take a break from our regularly scheduled political rantings to focus on a linguistic ranting — but don't worry, it's one with political applications.

The story of this post goes back several years to a freshman writing seminar I took at college. At one point, our professor begged us to stop introducing statements that were obviously our personal opinions with "in my personal opinion." She pointed out that the intelligent and careful reader should be able to tell the difference between a fact and an opinion, and they should furthermore be able to deduce that since you're writing an opinion piece, uncredited opinions are yours.

I've tried to keep that advice in mind ever since. If you look back at my posts, you'll find (I hope) that I mostly present my opinions upfront. When I wrote that "a lottery isn't anywhere close to a governmental function," I trusted you to figure out that this was my personal opinion. When used the same tone to write that "68 HDBs times 419 calories per HDB is 28,492 calories," I trusted you to figure out that this was a statement of objective fact.

An explicit "IMO" is valid when expressing a factual statement without being sure of its truth: "I think Mary meant that Billy smells bad." But politicians and pundits (see! I told you this would tie into politics) frequently throw in "I think," "in my opinion" or even the dreaded "I believe" superfluously.

Why is this? I haven't formally studied it, but my theory is that it's a way of hedging opinions and anchoring them in an absolute, unarguable fact. Whether Jesus is the one son of God and rode dinosaurs is absolutely true or absolutely false (even if we can't absolutely determine which it is), but that I believe in a divine, dinoriding Jesus is indisputable, if I say so.

Americans are trained starting in preschool to believe in a hyper-egalitarian world in which everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and opinions are never right or wrong. There are limits to this; some opinions are clearly stupid. But since we're taught that all opinions are created equal — better yet, that they're all created valid — all we need to do in order to state obviously wrong facts is to wrap them in an opinion.

Can't find any evidence to support the statement, "the government will set up death panels to kill your grandma"? No problem: you can just say "I honestly believe that the government will set up death panels to kill your grandma" and deliver all emotional punch without any of the liability. I can't hound you about what you just said, because that's just like, your opinion, man.

Now, clearly [warning: opinion!], not every use of "I think" is nefarious. It's often what wikipedia tells me is called a discource marker: that is, meaningless filler (I'm sometimes guilty of this, myself). Sometimes it's even validly used to explicitly mark something as an opinion, if it could be misconstrued as fact. But it's often used to present facts without backing them up, even if that's done on a subconscious level.

We should expect our leaders and political commentators to have enough control over their language that they won't accidentally blur the lines between fact and opinion, and we should expect enough intellectual honesty on their parts to not do it intentionally.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

And don't forget the bridges to nowhere

As the health care bill gets hacked up in Congress, I read today that abortion is once again the hot-button issue. It's the same argument we've heard for the past few weeks: a lot of people don't like abortion, and therefore they shouldn't have to pay for it, even as indirectly as paying taxes to a government that partially subsidies to private insurance plans which happen to cover abortions.

The problem with that argument is that in a varied democracy (as America is), people pay for things they don't like all the time. I'm morally opposed to the death penalty, yet I'm forced to pay taxes to a federal government that allows it; I'm not calling for the end of our judicial system. I'm morally and pragmatically opposed to our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet I'm forced to pay taxes to a federal government that wages them; I don't advocate dismantling the DOD. I'm morally opposed to state lotteries, denial of gay marriage, our incomplete separation of church and state, and a host of other things. Point is, I don't consider any of those issues to be veto-worthy for their respective agencies.

I'm alright with pro-lifers putting out their opinions; abortion is a complex issue with valid points on both sides. But taking such a hard line on it, and vetoing anything which brushes tangentially against it, is counterproductive. It's a recipe for disaster in as large a democracy as we have.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Keep out the vote

My esteemed colleague makes the argument that "get out the vote campaigns" are not only tacky, but undermining the foundations of Our Solid Democracy. Since I always order Freedom Fries with my shake, I have to take issue here. Tacky? Yes. But Get-out-the-vote campaigns are a pillar of the democratic processes, and leaving elections to only the well-informed would only pave the road to hell, however intentioned.

A) You can't legislate human nature, only diffuse it. Trust me, I've tried. One way or another, though, politicians will be poking and prodding their constituents to vote. Those troops on the front line, out putting yard signs in the middle of the night or picketing at busy intersections? A lot of those people probably have jobs that depend on that person winning: Often times, the person running is or will be those picketeer's bosses. By having a larger element of the body politic vote, you diffuse this effect: Politicians can only hire so many votes (Well, maybe not).

B) Organizing is a valid political act. The vote isn't the only element of a democracy, nor is it even, taken individually, a very effective one. Single votes rarely register as a blip in elections. Nor should they. Nobody challenges
C) It distracts our politicians from causing more damage. Have you met a politician lately? They're really great at selling. If they only had to convince intelligent people willing to research to vote for them, they'd have no problem steam rolling through, intellectualizing any problems or objections away. Instead, they are constantly organizing, promising, shaking hands and kissing babies (not vice versa!), pulling for a pet project here and telling school kids not to do drugs there. That in turn creates real changes that matter to real people (those country was built on pork, damnit!) and not the sweeping overhauls and massive building projects that soil politicians' nightly repose.

In closing: Get out the vote! Preferably for the politician with catchiest slogan and hottest endorser. They've earned it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Keep in the vote!

In part two of my two-part election-week extravaganza, I expound on what I think of "get out the vote" campaigns. The astute reader of blog titles may have divined where this is going: while I think it's great for people to vote, I think it's bad to try and convince them to do so.

Voting needs to be accessible, of course, but only passively: anyone who wants to vote should be able to easily, but we shouldn't be pursuing citizens and shoving forms in their faces. I'll wager that voter registration drives lead to a greater number of uninformed voters; how much can we expect someone to read up on the candidates and issues if that person couldn't be bothered to Google "[state name] voter registration" and mail in a form?

This isn't just elitist demagoguery. Voting registration drives are almost always — maybe always always? — organized by partisan groups, and the objective is pretty transparent. Rather than cultivating an environment of educated, informed voters who would then demand smart, sophisticated and lucid candidates, campaigns want an army of blind followers. You don't get that from putting a form online and having those who would be interested go and find it.

One way to move away from anti-intellectual and pop-culture elections is to stop convincing people that voting is hip or a great way to screw over some other region. If people really care about politics, they'll figure out how to register on their own. If they don't care that much, our democracy will function better if they sit it out.

So this coming Tuesday, don't forget to vote... unless it happens to slip your mind.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hide me the money!

This week is the home-stretch before next Tuesday's special senatorial primary in Massachusetts, so I've got elections on the brain. Today's post is going to be the first — and more harebrained — of my two-part election-week extravaganza.

The way I see it, politics is far too heavily skewed by corporate interests. There are those who disagree with that assertion; Radley Balko rightly points out that libertarians put a higher premium on individual rights than liberals, who like policies that promote equality. Conservatives also put more trust in the free market and corporate interests than liberals do, so they might be okay with corporations pouring money into elections. But I'm a liberal, dammit, and I think it's a harmful practice.

There are two main reasons for my stance. First, corporations are much stronger than individuals: they can't die of old age, and they're able to merge and buy each other, so they're much better at amassing and consolidating money and power. Second, companies' concerns are fundamentally different than people's. People have to worry about money, personal freedoms, fairness, happiness and a host of other "soft" concerns. Many of these concerns are contradictory, making people's objectives very complex; but since companies only worry about money, they skew policies in a way that's unbalanced relative to people. Given the choice between favoring corporations or favoring people, I'd lean toward people.

The question is, how do we move power away from companies without completely trampling their rights? For the past century, our approach has been to curb funding: there are limits to how much an individual or company can contribute to a campaign. One of the problems with this is that it reduces pressure from companies, but not necessarily from industries. Another is that it's less powerful against companies like law firms or banks, where a lot of individuals can contribute to the max, effectively multiplying their company's contributions. Yet another is that it does little to stop another problem in politics, which is that it's very hard to unseat an incumbent in a primary or run as an independent in a general election; you'd be working against someone with a lot of money behind them.

What if we instead curb spending? Let politicians gather money from anyone they please, but limit the amount they can spend on the campaign, preferably to a smaller number than the current average. This would greatly limit the amount of power a company or industry could wield: if there's an uncomfortable quid pro quo, candidates would be able to refuse the money, comfortable that they'll still be able to raise up to the maximum. It would also make it easier for independents to run, since it'll be easier for them to match their opponents' spending.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, this is a hairbrained and somewhat half-baked proposal. In particular, I'm not sure how it'd apply to PACs and other third-party groups. It wouldn't help at all if an industry decides to just deflect its spending on direct advertisement for a candidate, rather than giving it to that candidate's campaign. A few months ago, the Supreme Court held oral arguments in a case that would determine whether it's Constitutional to restrict third-party groups from spending money to effectively campaign for (or against) a candidate; if those restrictions — some of which are a century old — are overturned, the corporate skew in campaigns could easily get much worse than it is now.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A pro and two cons for the death penalty

I should preface this entry by stating that I have for some time been against the penalty on an absolute basis; I feel our laws should never allow for it. Nevertheless, I did read an interesting argument in favor of the death penalty at my favorite blog, The Economist's Democracy in America.

A post at DiA a few weeks ago brought up the death penalty, and much of the ensuing conversation focused on whether it acts as a deterrent or is just an ugly expression of vengeance. One poster made the interesting point that the death penalty is partially about revenge, but that it should be. The argument goes that laws should reflect society and human nature, and revenge is a part of human nature, for better or worse. Better to channel it through the less biased and more cool-headed legal system than to let individuals be the ones taking eyes for eyes, hands for hands and lives for lives.

I actually find that argument compelling, but not enough to change my mind. Laws should reflect human nature, true, but they can also be used to fix it. I know that sounds incredibly Orwellian, but consider that racial discrimination was made illegal far before it was made socially unacceptable, and the same is true of drunk driving and debtors' prisons. In the case of the death penalty, the government puts itself in an odd position by saying that certain people deserve being killed by the state, but don't deserve to be killed by individuals.

And although it's not related to the above, my second argument against the death penalty is as basic as it is boring: until we can ensure that the law is administered without biases or other human factors (professional ambitions, differences in competence between the prosecution and defense, etc.), the death penalty is going to inevitably result in some innocent executions. And that "until" will never happen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The problem with unemployment is that it's too low

I've been thinking a lot about the economy the last few months — shocker, right? — and I think I have an insight as to why we have such a bubble-prone and consumeristic society.

Let me back up a second and explore the problem: what's to blame for our double-digit unemployment? Subprime loans and over-leveraged banks, sure; but if GDP is a measure of a nation's wealth, and wealth is a measure of productivity and resources, how did we lose so much of GDP without any major disasters wiping out people or natural resources? Even the Great Depression had the Dust Bowl to help it along (although that isn't what started it). But today, America has about as many able-bodied people as it did five years ago, and about as many natural resources. Our GDP should be about the same now as it was then.

I'll skip to the punchline: one reason we have so many people unemployed may be that a lot of our jobs aren't necessary. Unemployment is high because there's nothing for people to do.

And technology is to blame. It used to be that a person's job was hunting and gathering, and that job generated just enough wealth to feed his family. There were, by definition, just barely enough people to fill the open positions. I don't know of any stats from pre-Sumerian days, but I'd bet they had somewhere around 0% unemployment.

Today, only about a third of the world is involved in creating food, and it's even more drastic in the US, where about 2-3% of our jobs are agricultural.  The other basic requirement for survival, shelter, doesn't provide nearly enough jobs to employ the rest of us. Residential construction employs about 1 million people in America, or around 0.3% of the population. In short, technological advances have enabled a minority of the world's population (including just 3% of America's) to supply us with the bare necessities of survival — a task that used to provide full-time employment for everyone.

The rest of us need jobs, though, and that's where consumerism kicks in. We make stuff that we don't really need and sell it to one another, because otherwise two thirds of the world (and 97% of America) would be out of a job. All of these jobs are predicated on the assumption that I can sell you something superfluous, because you have lots of money to spare, because you just sold someone else something superfluous, ad infinitum.

If I suddenly suspect that you won't buy something, then I have to lower my production, meaning I have less money to buy something from someone else, who was going to use that money to buy something from you so that you could buy from me. The same 97% of American GDP that was previously functioning without a raison d'ĂȘtre now shuts down for the same non-reason, which is the state we're in now. Indeed, if you look at the states that were hit least by this recession, they tend to be the ones that farm most; that is, the ones that produce something we actually need.

What's the solution? Going back to sustenance farming is obviously impossible, but a friend to whom I once mentioned this theory suggested replacing the consumeristic bubble with a more useful one, like finding ways to address global warming. The socialist in me wants to first redistribute our excess wealth, so that everyone gets to eat before the richest (by which I include even middle America) gets a new PS3 or yacht. Whatever route we go, it'll be both egalitarian and economically stabilizing to shift our production toward artificially-amplified needs rather than artificially-amplified trinkets.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bad timing

I wonder what good it’s doing gay rights activists to keep participating in the debate over same-sex marriage. I definitely want equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians (being gay tends to have that effect on a person), but there have been some pretty devastating defeats across the country. Recently voters in Maine and California have approved an all-out ban on same-sex marriages within their borders, even after judicial or legislative actions in those states permitted gays and lesbians to marry.

Many other states have done the same, altering either their laws or their constitutions to prohibit same-sex unions. Once a statute has been passed banning same-sex marriage or such a ban is written into the state’s constitution, it becomes significantly more difficult for gays and lesbians to achieve marriage rights in those states.

It is hurtful to watch rights being taken away from gays and lesbians. Knowing that there are so many narrow-minded Americans is highly discouraging. There is evidence that popular action against same-sex marriage is literally making gays sick.

The news isn’t all bad. Some states, namely New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa either recognize or will soon recognize the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Polls also suggest that public opinion is slowly moving in favor of equal marriage rights. But it’s not there yet. If California voters can ban same-sex marriage, it can happen anywhere. The risk of continuing this debate right now is too high. With constitutional amendments in place, we are making it much harder to institute equal rights once public opinion demands them.

Here’s what I suggest: hold off for now. By vociferously fighting for marriage rights across the country, we are doing more harm than good. Let’s work on other things for a while, like laws against discrimination in the workplace, adoption rights, and hate crimes legislation. Success in those areas will put us on equal footing with heterosexual Americans in other aspects of life, paving the way for marriage equality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Abortion and gay marriage

The Stupak-Pitts amendment to the House of Representatives' health care bill, which prohibits federal funds from even indirectly paying for abortions, has caused a bit of a stir here in Massachusetts. The special election to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate has four largely indistinguishable candidates, but the forerunner in that race made some news by saying she would vote against the bill if it contained the amendment. The second-place guy went on the attack by saying that it's wrong to vote against imperfect bills, before reversing and saying that he too would vote against the bill if its final version included Stupak-Pitts.

To those who say that the amendment is necessary to get more votes, I'd counter that voting against the bill solely because it doesn't include this amendment would be wrong. I understand that without the amendment, people would end up paying for something they feel is morally wrong; but that's the nature of democracy. I have moral qualms with the death penalty, but I wouldn't vote against a bill overhauling our judicial system just because of that.

Still, although I'm relatively pro-choice, I can understand the pro-life argument. If you consider a two-day-old embryo to be human life, then ending that life is murder. There's a long precedence that murder is a crime against society as a whole, not just against the victim; so that abortion affects you, and you have the right — the obligation, even — to outlaw it.

On the other hand, if you don't consider that embryo to be human, then it's nobody else's right to prohibit you from preventing it from becoming one by controlling your own reproductive system. It's a tough situation, and that's why it's a significant, perennial wedge issue.

But there's another wedge issue that shouldn't be one: gay marriage. Call me a crazy liberal, but it seems completely obvious to me that if we let straight couples marry, we should let gays marry, too. Unlike the case of abortion, a gay marriage doesn't affect anybody who's against it, except insofar as it makes them uncomfortable — which is not a justification to outlaw something.

If you don't like gay marriage, don't get gayly married. If you want to tell a gay married couple that they're going to Hell, well, I think you're a jerk, but you're within your rights. But until you can come up with a convincing, secular, consistent argument for why gays shouldn't be allowed to marry while straights should, the idea of banning gay marriage has zero legitimacy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Are you smarter than a conservative?

I read an interesting article recently about whether liberals are more intelligent that conservatives. The article was in The American, published by the libertarian American Enterprise Institute, so of course it's got a bit of an agenda. Still, it admits that many Republicans in the flyover states are probably not the sharpest knives in the drawer. (That's probably also true of a lot of Democrats across the country.)

Personally, I reject the contention that there is a correlation between intelligence and political beliefs. I do, however, thing that other attributes are generally more common in conservatives than liberals.

When I'm feeling bitter, I will say that conservatives are more selfish and evil than liberals. I'll say that conservatives don't care about anyone but themselves, and are too narrow-minded to understand the problems faced by people who are marginalized.

When I'm feeling a little more diplomatic, I'll say that conservatives are well-intentioned, but they don't look very far beyond the people they know and interact with on a regular basis. Conservatives worry primarily about their own families, friends, and neighborhoods. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to worry more about the environment, rights for the oppressed, and care for the poor. And of course, people who themselves are oppressed or poor tend to be liberals.

Still, intelligent people can and do have different perspectives on the world. And there are definitely conservatives who care about the world and want it to be as good as it can be. I personally just find it difficult to understand how social and fiscal conservatism is a path to a just and prosperous society. So maybe I'm the one who's stupid.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm cheap

This is a bit of a departure from our usual topics of discussion, but I have been thinking lately about charity. I was encouraged at work to set up an automatic deduction from my paycheck for the Combined Federal Campaign, a program through which federal employees can give to any number of charitable organizations. I chose one called World Neighbors and one called JHP, Inc. The former is an organization that provides skills and training to people in developing countries so that they can support themselves eventually. The latter is a homeless shelter in DC that also does case work to help people with mental health issues and job seeking. (DC has a *really* bad homelessness problem, from what I've observed since moving here.)

I like to think of myself as a pretty charitable guy who is genuinely concerned with the well-being of other humans. However, I only gave about 0.3% of my income to the Combined Federal Campaign, which seems pathetic. This makes me wonder about the charitable habits of other individuals. Am I unusually cheap with my philanthropy? Libertarians often argue that the government should not redistribute wealth, and that it should be up to individuals to decide how much of their own money they want to give to the needy. I have serious doubts about whether that sort of system would generate much money. Taxes (and the welfare programs they fund) force us to make some of our personal wealth available to those who find themselves unable to earn a living, and tax incentives encourage us to give.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lottery? More like... nottery.

Just when I thought I'd never get a cool hook to rant about state-run lotteries, my favorite professional sports team steps up to the plate crease. Earlier this week, the Boston Bruins announced a cross-promotional campaign with the State of Massachusetts to sell Bruins lottery tickets.

I've long maintained that states should get out of the lottery business. It's wrong twofold. First, a lottery isn't anywhere close to a governmental function. Lotteries don't enable equality, they're extremely non-essential and they're not even sectors in which the government can do a better job than the free market. And second, the government decries gambling as immoral in the same breath that it sets itself up as bookie. There are matters in which the government rightfully claims a monopoly: driving rules, war and imprisonment come to mind. But in general, if something is okay for the government to do, it should be okay for the private sector to give it a try. Businesses can even provide private police forces, more or less. If states want to run a lottery — which they shouldn't — they should at least let businesses get a piece of the action.

State governments run lotteries because they're lucrative, but it's a shell game: governments should be open about the funds they need and the taxes they enact to raise them. This form of taxation also happens to be fairly regressive. That many states direct their gambling profits to particularly feel-good causes like education doesn't excuse the fact. In fact, it's a bit of an insult to raise school money from a disproportionately under-educated demographic.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Electoral short circuit

I was thinking about voter fraud on the way to work this morning, actually, so I want to sound off on CH’s earlier post.

First off, gerrymandering is certainly a questionable practice, if not fraudulent per se. It’s done by both parties, so nobody can claim to be blameless. Tellingly, Wikipedia’s article on electoral fraud does discuss gerrymandering, saying that although it is not technically fraud, “it is sometimes considered to be a violation of the principles of democracy.”

The fact of the matter is that unless we decide we want to do away with ancient institutions like congressional districts and the Electoral College, manipulation of voter demographics is here to stay. The good news is that particularly egregious cases of manipulation are subject to judicial scrutiny (thanks largely to the decision in Baker v. Carr), and the redrawing of districts takes place so often that it’s unlikely that one side will end up ahead of the other in the long run.

Another issue related to voter fraud that I really wanted to discuss is the electronic voting machines (and this is what I was thinking about this morning). I find it a little upsetting that many (largely from the left, actually) are against the movement toward electronic voting machines. Wikipedia even says that “Elections which use electronic voting machines are prone to fraud in ways that elections using simpler technology are not (although they also prevent some methods of fraud).”

As you may have surmised by now, if I were ever to start a religion, its Bible would be Wikipedia. However, despite the level of trust I put in the accuracy of Wikipedia articles, I question the accuracy of that statement. Are there no conceivable technical ways of making electronic voting at least as foolproof as mechanical solutions? If we can develop technology that entrust computers with the storing of our financial data, the continued safety of air and rail travel, and the control of our arsenal of nuclear weapons, surely we can develop a sufficiently foolproof voting machine that will actually decrease fraud and costs, and speed up the tallying process.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Election fraud, right here in the USA!

And sensationalism, right here on Poliglut!

On the way to pick up my girlfriend from the airport the other day, I switched on my local NPR station and was aghast to hear that they were playing My Word!, a BBC game show for logophiles. The BBC categorizes the show as comedy; I'd say it's closer to insomnia medicine, but I tuned in anyway.

The first round of My Word! quizzed contestants on obscure words, and one of the first words was "gerrymandering". To most Americans, this word is probably about as obscure as "district," but the host wasn't even sure if the first two syllables were pronounced "Jerry" or "Gary." More striking was that as the contestant hemmed and hawed, he said that he believed it was a form of election fraud in the US.

This caught me off guard; I see gerrymandering as a semi-mild abuse of power, but election fraud? Are we really going to put redistricting trickery in the same category as ballot stuffing?

Well, why not? Gerrymandering is certainly an abuse, it's one that only the party in power can execute, and it systematically disenfranchises certain voters in order to keep that party in power even if it doesn't accurately reflect the will of the people. It's more subtle than ballot stuffing or thuggery, but it still smells like fraud to me. That we in the US are used to it doesn't make it less fraudulent, unless one has an axiomatic faith in American democracy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Gays hate on Nobel laureate

Well, there seems to be pretty much universal agreement that President Obama did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Even many liberals are on board with this one. This makes me wonder if the Nobel Committee anticipated this kind of backlash. It also makes me wonder if maybe they should consider reducing the frequency with which the Peace Prize is awarded.

Obama is also receiving a lot of flak from the LGBT community for his apparent failure to make any meaningful progress on gay rights issues. At his much-anticipated speech to the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday, he promised he would repeal the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. He didn’t say when, though. He also didn’t make any commitments regarding some more pressing concerns for the gay community, such as marriage and discrimination in the workplace.

Then on Sunday, all the gays (not including me) marched (or pranced, as my friend Shawn joked) in Washington to advocate for equality, perhaps expecting Obama to say, “oh, well I wasn’t going to do anything at all for gay rights, but since you marched, I’ll give you everything you want.” (Some have even suggested that the march is a waste of time.)

It’s clear that gay rights aren’t too high on the President’s list of priorities. Maybe I should be more upset about that, but I’m perfectly happy if he wants to focus on fixing the economy and our health care system. But, like everyone else, I am a tad bit miffed that he got a million dollars just for not being George W. Bush.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

None of your agribusiness

Food has been on my mind lately, so I was especially glad that Caligula's Horse weighed in on the topic.

This past Sunday, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about the state of agriculture in the United States. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was talking about how important it is for us to know where our food comes from and appreciate the effort that goes into producing it. Totally agreed.

Recently, the Obamas opened a Farmers Market here in D.C., near the White House. They billed it as an effort to promote healthy, locally-grown food. In a country where fast food is ubiquitous and obesity is a major problem (see, e.g., the bodyguard in Levi’s nutty commercial below…that can’t all be muscle), and in a world where people are suffering from hunger, we should care about producing good food and distributing it efficiently.

Some people hate big farming operations and lament the demise of the American family farm. I’m ambivalent. Big farms tend to be pretty harsh on the land they occupy, and livestock aren’t always treated well by large corporations. But big agribusiness can do a good job of finding new ways of producing a lot of food in a little space and without too many resources. Still, there seems to be a disconnect between the production of large amounts of food and the distribution of that food. We make enough food to feed the world, but people are going hungry. Low-quality, genetically-modified food may not be ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

3 lessons the left can learn from Levi Johnston

Well don't ask him directly, because then the answer is probably, "Not much." But the former paramour of Bristol Palin has shown surprising resilience of late, the current capstone being an acting debut in a Wonderful Pistachios commercial:

Who would have thought that former electrician's apprentice could get his still nascent model/actor career back on track just as America had finally forgotten about him again.

The lessons the left could learn from Levi are all about positioning:

1. You can't win 'em all Fathers who split are just about the least sympathetic characters in modern reality theater. They can make a comeback, but the Tsk'ing could well last a lifetime. See: Jon Gosselin. Everyone in America who watched TLC felt for the brow-beaten schlub, but when he ditched the kids to go galavanting, he lost all the public goodwill he'd built up over the years.

Levi was smart: He realized he'd burned some bridges (maybe even some $315 million ones), but rather than complaining, he set up camp and let loose on the Palins. Bully: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em. This sort of methodology worked wonders for the Bush administration (in terms of achieving its agenda), but the Democrats have taken some sort of high road to ruin, pledging and delivering on bi-partisan discussion.

What has that gotten them? Glenn Beck's controlled the conversation from Day 0 with bizarre rhetoric about Czars and Death Panels. For universal healthcare, it's a no brainer to say that if you're against it, you're against babies, old people and Apple Pie, so go for the jugular. Glenn Beck wouldn't have been any more pissed off and some actual reform might have happened.

2. Keep it simple Universal healthcare, as proponents like to explain it, is about as basic a right as they come. It's even (kind of) one of only three constitutional inaliable rights! So ramp up this "right to life" rhetoric and raise hell against the insurance conglomerates, which nobody likes anyways. This is a steak-and-potatoes sort of thing: People have a right to live, and that requires medical care.

Keep it as simple as possibly (don't worry, I'm sure it'll grow more complex to fit every special needs group over time anyways), and be up front about that: This is not the ideal we had hoped for, you tell people, but this is a deal we need. Plain, homespun talk thay says it's unacceptable to have people out on the street because they can't even get insurance for a pre-existing condition that they bear no fault for.

3. Get crackin'. Ok, so it's less Levi than Wonderful Pistachios, which is bouncing back with a fun, cheeky ad campaign to help people forget that the a million pistachio nuts were recalled earlier this year (none Wonderful, apparently) But it's working! And sure, Levi Johnston protection jokes are an easy play, but it's a quick victory that gets measurable results.

Comprehensive reform sounds great in textbooks and think tank journals, but it's generally where overly sweaping plans should stay. Be like Levi and go for the easy gigs that will give you high profile exposure while putting you on your way towars your ultimate goals: In his case, a credible modeling/acting career; in the left's, universal healthcare coverage.

Hungry, hungry humans

Last week's portrait on The Colbert Report of a professional athletic eater made me wonder: what would the proverbial starving child in Africa think of these Americans, lined up at a table, gorging on literally as much food as they can stuff in their mouths?

Alright, so it's not profound. But the numbers are interesting. A quick Google search turns up the following stats:
68 HDBs times 419 calories per HDB is  28,492 calories. Divide that by 1,555 and you get about 18.3 — an even 18 once you factor in sig figs. In those 10 minutes, Mr. Chestnut alone ate just over two and a half weeks' worth of food for someone in Somalia.

Incidentally, of those 1,555 calories a Somali eats, only 621 come from "animal products" (which I presume includes milk, eggs and the like). If we give hot dogs the benefit of the doubt and consider them animal products, those 68 hot dogs add up to about 21,012 calories, which is just over one months' worth of animal-derived calories for a Somali.

Of course, our mothers' plea to think of the starving kids in Africa who would just love that broccoli is bogus; corruption is probably the biggest plight in Africa, and the question of how to send aid is a difficult one. Still, I couldn't help thinking, as I saw the clip of so many people desperately eating all they could in a few minutes, that anybody who's ever experienced true starvation would be absolutely aghast at the sight.

Updated Nov 29, 2009: Found the nutritional content of Nathan's hot dogs specifically, and updated the numbers.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rational, schmational

My biggest problem with the free market is that humans are not rational creatures. We are influenced at least as much by emotion and impulse as we are by logic. The free market might work great on Vulcan, but here on Earth, people do irrational, self-damaging things like get addicted to drugs, pollute the air they breathe, and listen to Ashlee Simpson’s music.

Caligula’s Horse is right that our health care is rationed. Right now, the general way we ration is by providing more and better health care to wealthier individuals. I think it’s somewhat legitimate for conservatives to argue that opening up access to health care to the poor would put a strain on our already-limited medical resources. Doctors and hospitals would have to treat people who currently don’t get treatment. I disagree with the people who contend that the solution is to continue denying treatment to the poor.

A better solution would be to open more medical schools, nursing schools and hospitals. Law schools and lawyers are a dime a dozen (more law schools are opening every day and we need more lawyers like we need a hole in the head), and yet medical schools are still relatively few and far between. This is not because we don’t need more doctors. Rather, law and business schools tend to be cash cows for universities and are relatively low-cost institutions, whereas medical schools are very, very expensive.

Anyway, I digress. My point is that the free market has been tested as a means for supplying health care, and it has failed. Let's see if government can help.