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.