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.