Friday, December 21, 2012

Spike and the redefining of masculinity

Since the Newton shooting there has been some talk about masculinity. Much of it has been ridiculous; for instance, a gun add saying if you buy their gun you can have your "man card" back. Via Whedonesque, I came across this post trying to sort out what masculinity might mean. This reference to Buffy is why Whedonesque flagged it:

In the ’90s, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” fans could look to the black trench-coated Spike as an example of a man who could follow a woman as a leader. (The character is hardly a role model in all aspects, but he does that part well.)

As they say, Spike is a terrible role model for the vast majority of the time he is in Buffy. But there are some redeeming qualities there, even before he starts to break good around season 5.

Certainly Spike isn't the best male role model. But maybe because he is so flawed he could serve as a decent one. If we so choose, we could look at Spike as a reflection of the tension between what traditional masculinity has been and what modern society is changing it into. The traditional aspects of Spike's masculinity are his strength, toughness, bravado, and appetite for obtaining his goals (killing the Slayer). His battle with Buffy could serve as the battle between traditional and modern masculinity.

Buffy represents the rise of female power. Spike's history of killing two Slayers and his driven goal to kill Buffy represent a rebuttal of rising female power and the desire to maintain or retake the upper hand. I'm going off the top of my head here. So I won't go episode by episode in breaking this metaphor down. But to sum up, Spike is consistently beaten in this battle and ultimately concedes and joins Buffy's side.

Like Spike, traditional forms of masculinity need to accept the fact that they can no longer exist as the sole owner of all the world's power at the expense of everyone else. Not only that, men are better off with shared power. Or better yet, we are all better off doing away with these dividing concepts like masculinity all together. Like Buffy and all it's characters, we are stronger without them.

The NRA and GOP mentality

Ta-Nehisi Coates provides us with a fascinating analogy between the NRA and the pro-slavery proponents of the 19th century written by Tony Horwitz:

Emboldened by success, and imbued with a fanatical and paranoid world-view, they see enemies everywhere and regard any hint of compromise as betrayal. As New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote in 1854, slavery "loves aggression, for when it ceases to be aggressive it stagnates and decays. It is the leper of modern civilization, but a leper whom no cry of 'unclean' will keep from intrusion into uninfected company." Much the same applies to the NRA and its insatiable appetite for new territory to allow arms in, and new ways to allow those guns to be used--such as putting armed guards in our elementary schools, as the NRA today suggested.

The policy goals are different now, obviously. But the way in which the GOP and NRA think about the world is similar. Someone is always ready to take all their guns away. The same is true of all important forms of liberty they value; taxes and unchecked capitalism being two main ones.

I think the kind of paranoia Horwitz describes is central to the modern GOP. I say it's central to the GOP because I don't think it's central to all conservatives. Many people are conservatives because of a skepticism towards centralized power. Many liberals, including myself, share that skepticism. We just disagree sometimes on where to place that skepticism (conservatives more towards the federal gov't, liberals more towards private enterprise) and what the solutions should look like. But the group of conservatives that have a paranoid worldview have taken over the GOP. And it's no coincidence that they did so following the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

In short, the NRA has become a neo-Confederate movement that sees Federals as foes, and that stokes the paranoia of its followers by claiming, as LaPierre did this year, that Obama's re-election marks "the end of our freedom forever." That's more or less what Fire-Eaters said about Lincoln in 1860.

The parallel that is most interesting to me is that the constant in both situations is white male privilege. They didn't want to give up slaves because the slaves were their property, literally a source of their wealth. The modern GOP doesn't want to give up guns or more taxes because the guns protect their wealth and the taxes take that wealth and give it to people who aren't privileged white men. The roots of the paranoia are self interest. Sadly, it seems that the recent events in Newton aren't even enough for some (or at least someone like the NRA leader LaPierre) to put that aside for the greater good.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Zero Dark Thirty" and democratic discourse

Most of the discussion about this film has been about how it depicts the effects of torture, and rightfully so based on many people's accounts who have seen the film. But I haven't. So I won't rehash what those people (Glenn Greenwald for example) have written. One thing that bugged me from the first time I heard about this film is the fact that they made a movie about the killing of bin Laden when we as the public have conflicting reports as to what happened. How the hell can they make what the filmmakers are calling a "journalistic" movie when there are conflicting accounts? Here's how:

The senators’ letter notes that “there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters.” It’s not bad that the filmmakers talked to the government; reporters do it all the time. What’s troubling is that the government hasn’t talked more. We are meant to understand that the filmmakers heard things we can’t, at a time when cases brought by torture victims are thrown out of court because the government has invoked the state-secrets privilege. That’s not how our political discourse should work, either. So much about our recent history as torturers has been left unexamined, with no accountability, with details of events marked secret and shoved away, and the lines between the parts we do know left open to the imagination. The next time we are asked to make a judgment about whether our country should engage in torture, we should be able to look at more than a single movie. That is the value in the senators’ statement. Feinstein and Levin have access to classified information, too, as part of a review of this history, and they cite it in their letter. The senators shouldn’t edit the movie; they can, and should, increase transparency about torture.

This is a movie, after all, that opens, as the letter notes, with the real, recorded voices of the victims of 9/11, trapped in the towers, about to die, followed by a note saying that what follows is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.”

So as a public who wants to have important information about what our gov't does so that we can hold our elected officials accountable can't have access to that information. But if you want to make a movie about an event that the current administration finds flattering you can have access to this super-secret, too important to trust with us normal folk information. And then you can depict the effects of torture in a way that people with access to that classified information find inaccurate but still get signed off on using all this info for your "journalistic" movie.

I'm not one for hyperbole, but that is some Orwellian bullshit right there. I won't go to the other end of the spectrum and say that these filmmakers can't do what they did. That would be almost as ridiculous. But when they choose to not make a documentary (thus making it more art than journalism and leaving it open to interpretation) but then turn around and claim they took a "journalistic approach" to the movie while supposedly getting the effect of torture wrong, they open themselves up to the type of criticism they are getting. And if, as the people who have seen it are correct, it is wrong, those of us who know the facts regarding torture should criticize them loudly. Because sadly, popular entertainment is where many people might shape their stances on important issues such as torture.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tennessee legislature considering arming teachers

I'm not surprised in the least that someone from our crazy legislature is considering this:

School resource officers are paid jointly by the local sheriff’s department and the school district. Niceley’s bill would allow schools to pay for background checks and firearms training for teachers that woud allow them to be armed as well. Asked if the guns for the trained teachers would also be part of the taxpayer expense, Niceley laughed.

“Well, that’s a minor detail in Tennessee,” he said. “We hoped the teachers would have them already.”

The teachers that would be trained would be volunteers, he said, and would likely carry their own firearms to school.

This is a ridiculous overreaction to recent events. I understand wanting to keep kids safe. But all this really does is introduce more risk into the classroom. While terrible, events like Newton and Columbine are very rare. So what this policy would really do is subject people to an increased likelihood of an accident from teacher's gun rather than some potential murderer.

But putting aside that point, this just doesn't seem like a plausible way to avoid this sort of thing. The logic (I guess, who the hell knows with these people) is that having someone with a gun will either deter anything from happening in the first place or prevent/mitigate it if someone does attempt something.

The first assumption is ridiculous. The guy in Newton knew his own mother had guns and it didn't prevent anything. Every potential murderer with a gun knows other people might have guns. That's why they wear body armor. But even if it was assumed everyone everywhere had a gun there would still be motivation on the part of murderers. You can't change that aside from possibly going the mental health route, which this legislator doesn't seem to care about, or at least not as much as arming everyone first.

The second assumption is mistaken as well. Why would one plain clothed person make a difference? Schools are generally fairly large areas consisting of multiple buildings or areas within a large building. Presumably, you would need to have someone with a gun in every area of the facility in order to be fully protected. Having just one or even a few people armed would still leave most of the school very vulnerable, especially if the shooter has a high capacity gun/ammunition (but hey, let's not discuss this TN legislature and Governor Haslam). So even if we assume arming someone other than a trained police officer in a school is a good idea and could be effective, I don't see how you can't then say a significant amount of the faculty should be armed?

But I doubt even this legislator would go that far. Because even for people like him, that's a step too far. That's because at that point you no longer live in a civilized democracy. You live in a war zone, one in which violence rules over law and basic social contract. And as bad as that situation is for adults, it's insane to subject children to that type of environment. I don't doubt this legislator's desire to protect kids. But he is too wrapped up in the disastrous culture of guns we live in to look to any other alternative.

As I said, school shootings are so rare that I don't think this is a good idea even if it might work in practice, which I highly doubt it would. The better way to try and ensure safety is to look at the root causes of why these school shootings and homicides/suicides in general (this is the much more important aspect of gun violence) occur and try to solve the problem before these people get their hands on guns. The other way is to make it as difficult as possible for people to get guns in the first place. That's not something this legislator and probably many in TN's crazy legislature want to even contemplate. But that doesn't mean we have to go in the opposite direction and start arming everyone. Once you do that you basically give up and declare war on everyone.

Monday, December 17, 2012

How I Met Your Mother: The Final Page

Spoilers to follow for the episodes of December 17th.

I've been vocal about not being a fan of Robin and Barney together as a couple. These episodes finally addressed the big event they show us at the beginning of this season. But I'll get to that in a minute. First I want to discuss the other characters.

I predicted at the beginning of this season that it wouldn't go well, that the characters are all static and there just isn't much left to wring out of them. Thus far the season hasn't been that bad. I think that's mostly a testament to the outstanding cast and how well the handle anything they are given. One thing I thought I wouldn't like was Lilly and Marshall having a baby. That's been ok for the most part, but for a weird reason.

They barely ever show the baby. This kid must sleep 23 hours a day. That or Lilly's dad takes care of him 75% of the time. It's really weird. But I think that's why I haven't been disappointed with Lilly and Marshall this season. Ted has been Ted. He was good in the second part of tonight's episode. But given my problems with Robin and Barney, I was kind of hoping Ted would profess his love for Robin and she would come to her senses.

But given what they have already shown us about where this season ends, we know that Robin and Barney are going to end up together. I give the writers this, they handled the lead up and proposal pretty well. It was typical Barney. But despite most things going well, they still showed exactly why this relationship just doesn't work for me.

Robin reads the play and tells Barney this is yet another reason she can't trust him and thus why they can't work as a couple. And then, literally seconds after she says that, she agrees to get engaged to him. What the fuck? She knows she can't trust him and he just pulled a massive prank on her in which she was emotionally distraught and almost fired someone at work. But in the span of a few seconds she figures, eh, what the fuck?

Ugh. I just don't get it. They still have nothing in common aside from having the same friends and being good looking. Just as I feared, the writers have done nothing to bring me around on this. And now it's like they are actively trying to piss me off and ruin Robin for me. At least they used this to make Ted look good. And there's always Alyson Hannigan. I about fell out of my chair when she said she likes big wieners and wants one in her mouth.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gun norms

I won't spend much time talking about our gun culture. It's pretty clear that we are fanatical about guns, at least relative to the rest of the world. And in a way I understand it. I don't own any guns (except for a prop replica of Malcolm Reynolds' gun in Firefly/Serenity). But I get the appeal when looked at as kind of a toy or tool. I'm sure they can be fun. Though they are just too dangerous for me to embrace.

In light of my Twitter feed blowing up with news of a few terrible gun related killings (one here in Memphis and another in Newtown CT I think), the gun norms I want to talk about are the ones surrounding gun rights and the 2nd amendment. The anti-gun control crowd gets really defensive (and paranoid) really quick when we start to talk about regulating guns. But their opposition to any sort of gun control doesn't make sense in light of how we treat other rights.

Yes, as much as I don't think it's ideal, gun ownership is a right because of the 2nd amendment. The wording is confusing to me, as I can see how it can be read to only apply to militias. But getting moronic judges like Scalia to buy that one is about as likely right now as repealing the 2nd amendment through a constitutional amendment (would need huge majorities in Congress and I think 2/3 of states). I won't hold my breath on that. Though I would like to see Democrats propose it just as a symbolic measure and to get the issue on the broader legislative agenda.

What we can do, though, is regulate guns. The 2nd amendment gives you the right to own a gun, but not the right to do whatever you want with it. This concept gets drowned out by a very vocal anti-gun control group. But it's a pretty clear constitutional concept as I see it. Let's look at the 1st amendment as an example. The 1st amendment gives you many important rights such as free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom as assembly. But the freedom to do those things is not absolute. You can't say anything you want; see libel and inciting riot. You can't sacrifice virgins in the name of your religion. And you can't assemble anywhere you please, like say on a person's private property.

These exceptions to the rights we have are designed to protect people. The idea behind restricting rights is tied to the very idea of rights, which is protecting people from the gov't and other people. If we couldn't limit rights those rights would be useless in practice. Given that, there is no reason we can't regulate guns. We can argue about how to do so and how effective our policies can be. But I can't drum up a reason why the 2nd amendment should be treated differently than others.

Part of the reason this persists is that Democrats have basically given up on regulating guns. They never talk about it. Just now I read that the WH press secretary gave the typical "Now isn't time to talk about this" line, which is just a way to dodge the issue and not create controversy which they think will hurt them politically. That's just being cowardly. Democrats fought against anti-gay rights and are now winning that battle despite fairly recently being on the wrong side of public opinion. Until either we as citizens pressure political leaders to do something or until those leaders actually, you know, fucking lead; these norms will not change and we will continue to have obscene amounts of people die because of guns.

Update: I wanted to add something in light of this Conor Friedersdorf tweet:

Interesting that our reaction to this would be wildly different if perpetrator fit widespread notion of terrorist.

This is another glaring example in which people and politicians accept different constitutional norms when dealing with different issues. If this were a "terrorist" killing, the gov't would claim that it has/needs the ability to outright ignore constitutional rights like due process in order to protect us. But suggest that the gov't needs to regulate guns in order to protect us and Republicans scream tyranny and Democrats cower in a corner until the news cycle changes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Running into the "fiscal curb"

Noam Scheiber has me convinced that we should go over the so called "fiscal cliff":

That’s why going over the fiscal cliff is so critical this time. Here’s what happens if we head into 2013 without a deal: Taxes will rise on every American. Thanks to the PR offensive the administration has waged—month after month of accusing the GOP of holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to cuts for the wealthy—and to the president’s structural advantages during a showdown with Congress, the public will immediately and overwhelmingly blame the GOP. “If we go over the cliff,” Bill Kristol wrote Monday, “what Republicans will have done is to make Democrats the party of tax cuts and Obama a president fighting for economic growth.” (Polls currently show that Americans will blame Republicans by a 53 to 27 margin; it will surely get worse every hour of 2013 that the standoff lingers). Which is why, within a few days or weeks of January 1, the GOP will almost certainly throw in the towel—“Republicans will fold with lightning speed,” is how Kristol put it. Democrats will propose a bill allowing rates for the top 2 percent to return to their Clinton-era levels and restore the Bush tax cuts for everyone else.

And what of the economy? It will come through just fine. As others have pointed out, the “cliff” is a lousy metaphor. The effect of the tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to begin next year is more like a mildly uncomfortable slope, with the toll on the economy accumulating only gradually. A few weeks down this slope—which is likely to be the outer limit of how long the GOP can hold out—will do no damage to speak of. And while financial markets may get jittery, I’d caution against overstating even that. It turns out some savvy investors are treating the cliff as an attractive buying opportunity and hoarding cash accordingly.

But the real key here is the political upshot of going over the cliff: Republicans will see in defeat that it’s not Obama who has somehow pulled one over on their leadership or simply played his hand better. Instead, they will see that they have been completely repudiated by the public in a way that even the election didn’t impress on them. It will, in other words, be as close as you get in politics to a total victory for one side. It will highlight the perils of following one’s base too slavishly, a lesson that will come in handy not just on future fiscal policy fights (there will in all likelihood still be a debt ceiling to raise next year), but, one can imagine, also on an issue like immigration. Which is to say, it’s only by forcing the GOP off the cliff that Obama will find the space he needs to govern.

The bolded part is the key to getting what he describes in the last paragraph. I have a hard time seeing how Democrats wouldn't look better in that situation. And it's not a difficult argument to make. Even Democrats shouldn't have too much of a problem making it. They just have to take from the Republican playbook and make it loudly and often.

This would also serve to be a symbolic battle, pitting the rich and powerful on one side (the Republican side) and everyone else on the other (the Democratic side). Democrats should stoke that symbolism into a populist frenzy. You can bring other issues in on this aside from taxes. I'd throw in medicare and social security. Say Republicans want to make it harder to get those things, and make them less lucrative when you finally do get them. And they want to do that all so they can give more money to the rich and spend more money on unnecessary defense.

I said previously that Obama and Democrats should be willing to bargain away higher taxes on the rich. I still believe that. But I'm willing to go over the curb or cliff if we don't get a really good deal before that because of the scenario Scheiber lays out. And if that scenario plays out like he says and how I believe it would, I'd still be willing to bargain away tax cuts for more things, the big one I think being the debt ceiling.

If Republicans are as insanely devoted to rich people as they appear, maybe they would be willing to agree to raise the debt ceiling (or better yet, just get rid of it) in exchange for keeping the lower rate on taxes for the rich. I'd pull the trigger on that deal happily because I think it helps the economy and Democrats more than raising taxes. Also, being willing to budge on tax increases primes you for the unlikely scenario that Democrats lose the public in this battle and Republicans don't cave after we go over the curb. If that happens I think we can still save face by getting something like an extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises on BluRay

Politics is slow and boring right now. So I haven't had much to say. I'm also kind of back into my "depressing job search" mode in which I blog in spurts. So to get out of ruts I try to look beyond politics to find something to write about. And this was a big week for Batman fans like me. The Dark Knight Rises came out on BluRay. Obviously, I was ready to drop $40 on the special edition (picture here).

But the first two places I went informed me that none of their stores in the entire city had the special edition set. I was extremely annoyed that the first store didn't have it. I was on the brink of snapping and turning into the Joker when the second store didn't have it. Luckily, the third store had two left (in retrospect, I should have bought both). If they didn't have it I would have either fell to the floor weeping or snapped and destroyed the store. So, crisis averted. I had underestimated how few of these special editions they were making and how many Batman fans there are out there like me.

I haven't watched the movie on BluRay yet. I'll get to it either tonight or tomorrow night. I expect it to be incredible, which will likely eventually cause me to wear out the disk. But I have watched the special features and I wanted to say a word or two about that. I had seen some of the Batmobile documentary on tv before. But I watched all of it on the disk and it was fantastic. It gave a pretty in depth look at how each Batmobile was made and then looked at the cultural impact it has had. It was really cool to see that. And it was really touching when they drove the Tumbler to a children's hospital so that the kids could have some fun with it.

The other special features dealt with the making of Rises. There were quite a few of them and they were all interesting. As is typical with Nolan movies, no one sits there and explains the plot and themes. There are some instances where they touch on what they were trying to do, mainly in developing characters like Bane and Selina. But otherwise it's about how they made/shot the movie.

If you want a review of the movie itself, I'll direct you a compilation of what I've written about it here. I love this movie, the Nolan trilogy, and Batman a ton. And I'm thrilled to be able to enjoy it whenever I want. I strongly suggest you go buy it and do the same.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Iran and nuclear deterrence

I've written a lot about this before. So I won't spend much time rehashing the same old arguments because they are, in fact, the same arguments because nothing has or probably will change. I just want to reiterate same points that Steve Walt makes (via Andrew Sullivan):

[B]oth theory and history teach us that getting a nuclear weapon has less impact on a country's power and influence than many believe, and the slow spread of nuclear weapons has only modest effects on global and regional politics. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring direct attacks on one's homeland, and they induce greater caution in the minds of national leaders of all kinds. What they don't do is turn weak states into great powers, they are useless as tools of blackmail, and they cost a lot of money. They also lead other states to worry more about one's intentions and to band together for self-protection. For these reasons, most potential nuclear states have concluded that getting the bomb isn't worth it.

But a few states-and usually those who are worried about being attacked-decide to go ahead. The good news is that when they do, it has remarkably little impact on world affairs.

I'll add that I would prefer that Iran not develop/obtain nuclear weapons because a not-strongly financed nuclear program can be dangerous. I mean dangerous in a meltdown sense, not the bombing other countries sense. Better to not create that risk than to have to worry about it, however small that risk may be. But I don't support basically starving the people of Iran in order to achieve the goal of deterrence. We need to find a better way.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Tax hype and the fiscal curb

Reading yet another post on the fiscal curb and the deficit "problem" got me thinking about what both sides want. This whole issue is ridiculous. It was created by Republicans in the House to make Obama look bad and to get lower taxes. Up until now I've agreed with Obama's preference to raise marginal tax rates on income at 250k and up. The problem in these fiscal curb negotiations is that Republicans really, really don't want that. If there is one thing they are consistent about, it's that they want to lower taxes on the rich. So how do we get a deal given these constraints?

Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich in order to help lower the deficit. But I don't care about the deficit right now. So even though I'd like to raise taxes on the rich in principle, I'm willing to give that up. I'm not sure if Obama is willing to give that up for things like extension of unemployment benefits or extension of a payroll tax holiday. But I would. If he doesn't, though, I think the compromise would be to call the Republican bluff and try to reform the tax code while keeping or even lowering rates.

Part of the problem with that is Republicans haven't been clear at all as to what that would specifically entail. But I would preempt them with my own very liberal way of trying to get revenue without raising rates and declare that I've given away a huge concession for the sake of getting this deal done and cutting the deficit. I'm not sure if they would take actually accept this and concede on regressive spending cuts they are demanding. But at this point I don't think it makes a ton of sense to have tax increases on high incomes be your red line in negotiations.

A lot of liberals want this. But not doing it might help in the future. Republicans will still whine about taxes. But they wouldn't be able to scream bloody murder if we don't raise them. This would also allow us to keep the option on the table in the future, whereas if we get tax increases now, I think it would harder to get more in the future when we might need them more than we do now. Bottom line is that for the sake of the 2014 midterms and more importantly, human welfare, we need to keep the economy growing. That should take priority over deficit reduction. So whatever Obama can bargain away to get that he should, even higher taxes on the rich.

Update: Matt Yglesias and myself appear to be on the same page. Here he talks about what Republicans should do:

Tell him he can have his stimulus and he can even have higher tax revenue if he really wants it, but that the price is giving up his obsession with higher rates. Is he more interested in soaking the rich or in creating jobs? I don't think Obama says no to a deal like that, and if he does lots of sensible liberals (like this guy) will call him out on it. Then we can put this sorry episode behind us, proclaim the Grand Bargaining Era done for, and hopefully move on to other things.

Here he talks about the role of taxes in this negotiation:

The reason a sensible person might want more revenue rather than less in a budget deal is that more revenue might allow you to minimize cuts in spending on worthwhile causes. But at the end of the day the budget of a sovereign state that borrows money in its own currency is all about spending levels. The proper goals of a budget negotiator are to maximize cuts to bad programs and minimize cuts to good ones. When higher taxes helps achieve the latter goal, that's great. When it doesn't, then who cares?

The trap you don't want to fall for is the one in which getting "the rich" to "pay their fair share" becomes a political plot to make you swallow a deal you'd otherwise reject. At some iterations of the Obama-Boehner deficit talks it's looked as if Obama's going to ask liberals to give up the store on Social Security and then sugarcoat it with higher taxes on the rich. What's great about the proposal Tim Geithner apparently formally made to the House GOP is that it rejects this formula and does a good job of avoiding cuts to valuable programs and in fact increases spending in some key areas.

If you can get that good stuff out of a deal—and it's a big if—then it'd be foolish not to give some ground on the tax side. If you can get a better spending mix with higher taxes, then higher taxes are great. But if you can get a better spending mix with lower taxes, then lower taxes are even better.

It's not surprising I'm on the same page with Matt given that he's taught me a lot about economics. Hopefully Obama and Democrats see this.

"Lincoln" and films about history

I saw Lincoln this past weekend and really enjoyed it. I'm not much of a Spielberg fan. But he was in top form here, as was the entire cast and crew. Daniel Day Lewis is as great as everyone has said. As a piece of entertainment I give it high marks. But in reading a lot of critiques of the movie from a history perspective, it seems either incomplete or out of focus, perhaps both.

I'm a bit torn as to whether that's just a minor inconvenience (likely a result of the nature of the medium) or a big flaw that detracts from almost undeniably effective things the movie does well. On the one hand, if you set out to make a movie about history and the people that helped shape that history, you have some sort of obligation to make it accurate (unless you're making something like Inglorious Basterds). On the other hand, you aren't making a documentary, which I think bears a higher standard for accuracy and scope (something like Ken Burns' Civil War documentary). In the end, when you make a studio, non-documentary movie, you are making a piece of entertainment.

Just because it's entertainment doesn't mean it can't be about important ideas/themes. The Dark Knight Trilogy does both, which is why I love it so much. And this is why I liked Lincoln so much, despite it's flaws from a history perspective. Yes, passing the 13th Amendment during the lame duck session wasn't necessary. They could have passed it in the next session when Republicans had the votes. No, Lincoln was not the sole arbiter of that Amendment nor the abolishment of slavery, which the film's focus kind of implies.

But what worked for me were the ideas behind the things being debated and fought over. Those ideas are self evident in the film, but powerful nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens, the "radical" abolitionist. I identified the most with him, being somewhat of an idealist that doesn't always think you have to compromise or push things along slowly. Even though I would side more with Stevens than Lincoln, the character of Lincoln was compelling because there was internal struggle. I sympathized with the challenge he faced. And damn did he have a way with words, words that beautifully conveyed the importance of the ideas being debated. The (spoiler alert) scene at the end which depicts his 2nd inaugural speech had he been able to read it was incredible, almost as tear inducing as the end to The Dark Knight Rises.

So do I sympathize with the people who have serious problems with the way the movie depicts history? Absolutely. But I just don't think you can ask for a whole lot more with this medium. That's not to say I don't think we should try to do so. But as long as studios care about profit I won't hold my breath. Some of the ideas about politics and the focus on Lincoln being somewhat of a singular abolitionist are troubling. But I think it gets the big ideas correct. And people who might not otherwise read about that time in history at least got some exposure to it and were entertained in the process. I don't think too much harm will come of that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Deciding policy with religion

Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses abortion in this post and it got me thinking about where anti-abortion advocates draw their reasoning from:

I would submit that if you believe abortion to be murder, you don't decide at all. There is a chilling intellectual consistency in the behavior of Halappanavar's doctors, and pro-life activists who we dismiss as "extremists." Either abortion is murder, or it isn't. If you believe the former then Halappanavar's doctors were quite correct -- they refused to murder a baby to save its mother.

Walsh was lying in his refusal to admit that women actually do die during the work of pregnancy. But his position -- "without exceptions" -- strikes me as the honest one. The problem here isn't packaging. There is no way to honestly modify its import. Either you believe that women who have sex should run the risk of being remanded to potentially lethal labor, or you don't. No exceptions.

A lot of people strongly disagree with abortion because they genuinely think it's murder. But I think many come to that conclusion in two ways. First, their religion tells them it's so. They are told this from day 1 as a kid and it's ingrained in them by the time they hear a dissenting opinion. This religious belief also has the convenience of being fairly logical and self-evident, at least up to a point.

Because it's easy to think of pregnancy and see a baby inside a mother's big belly, it's fairly logical to think that's a person and aborting it would be killing it. And at a certain point I would agree with them. But this ignores the reality that most abortions take place very early on in the pregnancy and it's a question as to whether the fetus or cluster of cells qualifies as a human life.

It's at that point where the argument essentially comes down to what your religion tells you vs. the various arguments pro-choicers use. This is the point where the anti-abortion argument is extremely weak. Just because your religion says the policy should be 'X' should garner next to no merit. Why should we bother considering what your or anyone's religion thinks? What if my religion says abortion is not murder? How do we decide which person's religion to follow and make policy from?

That's why we have a 1st amendment and why we shouldn't dictate policy based on religious preferences. There's just no way to determine who is correct based on religious belief alone. If you do make policy based on religion you are discriminating against every person who doesn't share that religious belief. This country and gov't was founded in part of the idea that it's not right to do that.

Economic heuristics

Kevin Drum wonders why people tend to listen to CEOs when they talk about the economy:

I'm a cynic, so I suppose you should take my views on the business community with a shaker of salt. Nonetheless, here's what I think we should conclude from this: Fortune 500 CEOs should never be taken seriously on macroeconomic issues. Their job is to dole out high-grade BS in public, and politics and macroeconomics are just grist for their mill. Every word out of their mouths is special pleading, and that's how the business press ought to treat it. I really have no idea why anyone ever takes them seriously on this stuff.

When people hear "CEO" the heuristic (mental shortcut that easily allows someone to identify something without too much mental work) they conjure up is someone who is important, has authority and expertise in the area, and thus should be trusted with their opinion. It's more difficult to explain why this heuristic exists.

I think part of it is that it's just simple. After all, that's why it's a heuristic. Everyone knows what a CEO is. Because of that (or maybe this is causing everyone to know it) the media frames and focuses on that one person. It's like the QB in football. The media and fans focus on that one person because they are the said to be the most important person, the CEO of the players. So when we think of a CEO, we think of a leader.

Another part of it is I think there is a status symbol at work in our society regarding the CEO. They are either elites whose family has run businesses for a long time (Rockefellers) or really talented people who worked their way up to lead great companies (Steve Jobs). We are a very individualistic society. We love to frame things in individualistic ways. And CEOs are a great way to do that. So we kind of put CEOs up on a pedestal, glorifying what they do. Given their high status and leadership position it's no wonder people pay attention when CEOs give their opinion, even though they shouldn't.

Tax subsidies for churches

A while back I said I don't think we should let religious institutions not pay property taxes on their churches:

I don't see any reason a church/religion should get special exemption. I would be willing to keep the status quo if I thought that the exemption and threat of having it removed kept churches from advocating politics. I strongly suspect it doesn't. So I think a fair thing to do would be to officially let churches say what they want and force them to pay taxes like the rest of us.

The biggest deal here is the tax exemption, which allows churches to own huge pieces of lang at low prices while driving up prices for everyone else. The free speech issue here is really more a matter of theory because in practice this restriction isn't much of a burden. As a preacher or whatever, you can practically walk outside your church and onto the sidewalk and advocate whatever/whomever you want and their tax exemption would be fine.

Matt Yglesias confirms my suspicion that it's unfair:

State and local governments generally exempt churches (and mosques and synagogues, but realistically it's mostly churches) from property taxes. This not only costs revenue, but it leads to a substantial misallocation of real resources as scarce land is left unavailable for more productive uses. The ups and downs of urban growth have left many churches stranded in what are now core business districts that offer location amenities that would be extremely valuable to a commercial real estate developer but offer little concrete value in the religious sector.

More broadly, you have to consider the tax elasticity issues here not just in terms of inputs but of outputs. If church donations were subject to income taxes and church land were subject to property taxes, this would presumably lead to smaller and less architectually splended churches located in less-pricey areas and perhaps with lower-paid clergy. But would fewer souls be saved? Would an angry God blight are crops?

The answers are no and no. The flipside is that churches presumably would respond in part by providing marginally less in the way of social services. But the low elasticities are relevant here. The cost of those reduced church-provided social services has to be weighed against the cost of more dynamic economic growth, and more provision of state services and I don't think it remotely passes the test. Unless, that is, it does anger God and he visits his wrath upon us. But that's the real issue here. Does God care about the splendor of the churches built in his honor and is he prepared to offer us tangible rewards in exchange for subsidizing them? If so, it's a no-brainer. But if not it's an awfully wasteful policy.

I obviously don't care whether this would anger god. But even if you do, I think Matt's correct that it wouldn't. If it did, for some reason, anger god that some religions couldn't build huge, extravagant churches (like this one, which the pic doesn't do justice, it takes up a huge swath of land, much of it doesn't even get used) then I'd seriously question the merits in caring what that god thinks.

Dolphins vs Seahawks: playcalling by down

For most of this season I've been complaining about how the Dolphins have called plays. My eyeball test was telling me that they were running the ball way too much on 1st down, which was having the effect of not gaining many yards (even good running teams gain less per rush than bad passing teams gain per pass), thus making it harder to make a first down on 2nd and 3rd down. Not wanting to rely just on my eyeballs, I kept track of the playcalling vs Seattle. Here is the rundown:

1st down: 18 runs 10 passes

2nd down: 6 runs 11 passes

3rd down: 3 runs 7 passes

You can see the big disparity on 1st down, which obviously has a direct effect on what you do on the next two downs. We ran the ball better against Seattle than we have since the first week or two of the season. But even then, we are in the bottom half of the league in yards gained per rush. So on average, when we run the ball on 1st down we are leaving Tannehill with about 7 yards to gain on the next two downs.

I don't have the up to date data for 3rd down stats. But Football Perspective several weeks ago, the Dolphins were top 5 in the league in most yards to go on 3rd down. I don't see any reason up to this past weekend that should have changed much. Against Seattle we only needed about 5.3 yards per 3rd down. As I said, that's a direct result of what happened on 1st down.

If we can run the ball as well as we did against Seattle going forward I wouldn't mind the excessive running on 1st down so much. Even then I think we should be throwing the ball more often, if anything just to change the predictability of the offense and maybe make it a bit easier on Tannehill.


Intellectually honesty and epistemic closure

Bruce Bartlett gives a detailed account of his own battle with intellectual honesty and how it made him an outcast within the Republican party and conservatism as a whole:

After careful research along these lines, I came to the annoying conclusion that Keynes had been 100 percent right in the 1930s. Previously, I had thought the opposite. But facts were facts and there was no denying my conclusion. It didn’t affect the argument in my book, which was only about the rise and fall of ideas. The fact that Keynesian ideas were correct as well as popular simply made my thesis stronger.

I finished the book just as the economy was collapsing in the fall of 2008. This created another intellectual crisis for me. Having just finished a careful study of the 1930s, it was immediately obvious to me that the economy was suffering from the very same problem, a lack of aggregate demand. We needed Keynesian policies again, which completely ruined my nice rise-and-fall thesis. Keynesian ideas had arisen from the intellectual grave.
...
On the plus side, I think I had a very clear understanding of the economic crisis from day one. I even wrote another op-ed for the New York Times in December 2008 advocating a Keynesian cure that holds up very well in light of history. Annoyingly, however, I found myself joined at the hip to Paul Krugman, whose analysis was identical to my own. I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers.

For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.

This isn't just bad for the Republican party. It's bad for the country because it makes it harder to pass good policy. If Republicans weren't so blindly opposed to the Keynesian solutions to the type of recession we were under it's very possible that the economy would be in much better shape right now. As for the deficit they love to complain about when they don't control things, it would likely not be nearly as big if they didn't blindly vote for whatever Bush wanted.

But as Bartlett points out, they are so intellectually dishonest that they can't acknowledge their own mistakes and thus any solutions or ways to prevent making them again.

I don't want to make this strictly about Republicans. There is a lot of research that confirms that everyone seeks confirmation bias (ignoring things that contradict what you already thing and seeking out only things that confirm what you think). I do it to at least a small extent. But I try to be honest enough with myself that I read people like Andrew Sullivan and Conor Friedersdorf to make sure I'm not seeing things only through a liberal lens. But I do that because I value the truth and data. Not all liberals value those things like I do. So I hope we don't fall into the trap Republicans have put themselves in.

I think we can avoid that because liberals tend not to identify themselves so strongly to the tribal/cultural things conservatives value. I'm not sure how Republicans can get out of their trap because they so heavily form their identity around tribal/cultural things. Earlier tonight at dinner I got my conservative uncle riled up by bringing up sexism in the catholic church. He takes that criticism personally because it's a big part of his identity. I'll argue about that stuff but I won't take much personal offense with those who disagree because it just doesn't make up much of who I am.

Because of the nature of conservatives I tend to agree with the consensus of the conservatives I read regarding when their behavior will change, which is after another big electoral defeat. That's the strongest incentive for any party to change it's behavior. And though I try not to put too much faith in top down leadership, I think a strong leader who practiced and enforced some intellectual honesty would help solve the problem. Let's hope for the sake of the country something changes, and relatively soon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tax hype

With the "fiscal curb" (it's not a cliff) being the big topic in DC we are talking a lot about taxes. We always talk a lot about taxes, at least Republicans do. They are important. But they are overhyped, especially if you are talking about economic growth. Matt Yglesias explains:

The case against returning to the kind of 90 percent marginal income tax rates that we had in the 1950s seems pretty ironclad to me—the 1950s tax code raised way less money than the 1990s tax code (90 percent tax rates are a great stimulus to tax avoidance strategies) so what would the point be? But there's no doubt that tax rates that high were compatible with robust economic growth. This is a somewhat embarassing fact for people who put a lot of emphasis on low marginal tax rates as a key to growth.
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The argument here, which certainly makes sense, is that the postwar US economy grew fast not because of high tax rates but despite them. But Lindsey locates the true cause of the rapid growth in wartime economic planning which led to "technological and organizational breaktrhoughs." I don't think we can attribute air conditioning to the war, but certainly the "big advances" in transportation and communication were a direct result of World War II and then the Cold War. Similarly, the "rapid upgrades in human capital" he lauds were a matter of state-led investment, not bottom-up economic competition.
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Indeed, the thrust of Lindsey's initial analysis is that massive government-directed investments in education, transportation, and communications infrastructure are so amazingly beneficial that they swamp the negative impact of other bad aspects of our 1950s and 1960s policy paradigm.

Which makes sense to me. But I think we'll be waiting a long time for the followup post on the Cato blog about the need to spend lots of money on upgrading our air traffic control system, building a smart grids, building fiber-to-the-premises broadband networks, establishing a universal preschool program, upgrading Northeast Corridor passenger rail, and so forth. And yet that seems to be precisely the point. The politicial system is highly predisposed to spend tons of time arguing about tax rates. But even a really silly tax code—90 percent rates that don't raise any revenue!—was compatible with ultra-fast growth as long as other aspects of the policy mix were constantly pushing rapid improvements in education and rapid deployment of state-of-the-art technology in key sectors.

So the economy grew at a very high rate despite incredibly high marginal tax rates. Yet the economy shrank at a very high rate in 2008 despite pretty low rates and recent tax cuts by the Bush administration and a Republican congress. As Matt says, the economy seems to grow and shrink despite of, not because of, tax rates. They just don't seem to have a huge effect because there are other things that matter much more, such as investment in infrastructure and education.

In our current debate about taxes we aren't talking about huge tax increases and a return to 1950s marginal rates. We are talking about a return to Clinton era rates for income above $250k (it's only the income you make beyond $250, we all pay the same rates on the income levels below that). And as in the 1950s, the economy grew at a good rate during those higher tax Clinton years, higher than the lower tax Bush years.

So when politicians (even some Democrats) talk about this "fiscal curb" situation or any time they talk about the deficit/debt and spending, don't let them overhype the role marginal income tax rates play on the economy. Republicans fetishize it and really only care about rich people's rates while at the same time want to gut as much of the gov't as they can. So if you care about the gov't helping people I'd strongly advise not listening to them.

And some Democrats either just don't understand the fact that we won't go bankrupt if we deficit spend or don't care as much as the rest of us about entitlements. So if you hear those Democrats (Obama being one of them) being open to regressive cuts like raising social security's retirement age, don't listen to them either. We can continue to deficit spend in order to help those who need it or we can raise taxes to keep spending without increasing the deficit (which is also overhyped). Don't let them scare you with tax hype.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ron Swanson quotes

One of my favorite sites, pajiba.com, has a bunch of Ron Swanson quotes here. I love Parks and Recreation and think Ron is really funny. But when you lay all of his quotes out in one place you realize that he's kind of nuts. His delivery and love of bacon often mask how crazy his ideology is on the merits. Hopefully his character moves slightly away from the crazy while keeping the love of bacon and most meats. Anyway, here are some of my favorite quotes:

“The less I know about other people’s affairs, the happier I am. I’m not interested in caring about people. I once worked with a guy for three years and never learned his name. Best friend I ever had. We still never talk sometimes.”
“You may have thought you heard me say I wanted a lot of bacon and eggs, but what I said was: Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.”
Never half ass two things, whole ass one thing.
“The whole thing is a scam. Birthdays were invented by Hallmark to sell cards.”

Bill O'Reilly and conservative reaction to the election

I don't usually take to criticizing pundits directly. For the most part I think it gives them more credibility than they're worth (which is none) by addressing them. But I'm making an exception for Bill O'Reilly for a few reasons. First off, I used to like Bill when I was a young conservative. When he isn't being an asshole, he has a certain charm to him. And he's effective at what he does, which is argue in a very controlled environment. He's good at giving a quick and concise argument that takes more time than he gives you to refute.

Another reason is that Bill isn't always blind to reality. Sometimes he is able to see through the made up reality that many conservatives live in and give decent analyses. But it appears he is living in that made up reality:

If you look at the exit polling, you’ll see that a coalition of voters put the President back into the oval office. That coalition was non-tradition, which means it veered away from things like traditional marriage, robust capitalism, and self reliance. Instead, each constituency that voted for the President — whether it be single women, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, whatever — had very specific reasons for doing so. [...]

Traditional American voters generally want a smaller government in Washington, more local control, some oversight on abortion, and believe in American exceptionalism.

This is the same basic narrative that many conservatives have been giving since the election. I haven't posted about it since so many of the people I read have refuted the arguments so well. But this one made me think about where the racism comes from.

This idea that minorities (mainly black people) are in large, dependent on the state is just wrong. True, a higher % of the black population relies on welfare programs like food stamps than other races (which is due to centuries of slavery and segregation). But the biggest benefactor of those programs are white people. Most welfare recipients are white. So why, according to Bill, do white people believe in self-reliance and American exceptionalism while black people don't? It's because the use of welfare and related programs are always framed as primarily helping black people. The media overwhelming uses black people as the narrative when they talk about welfare programs. Because of that, and bullshit stories like Reagan's welfare queen, people associate welfare with black people.

Bill and his fellow conservatives are working under that framing, and also one in which all the white people they know and see aren't poor and all the minorities they know and see are poor. So the media framing and their limited worldview mean that must be how the rest of the world works. And since Bill isn't getting the benefits those poor people are getting while he works "hard" at being a pundit he sees it as unjust. That shows an ignorance of not only black people and the poor in general, but of basically our whole gov't and society.

This idea that conservatives and rich people don't benefit from the gov't is ridiculous and wrong. If anything, they benefit more from the taxes we all pay and the "gifts" that Democrats give to people from those taxes. They wouldn't be able to enjoy the wealth and safety they do without the infrastructure the gov't provides. Wall Street would probably look different right now if not for a bailout from the gov't. The list goes on. The rich can complain all they like. But not one of them is going to trade the "stuff" the gov't gives them for what the gov't gives the poor and everyone else.

Bill isn't even right about his own "traditional American voters", which means white men. Even white men want the gov't to give them things. They like social security and medicare. They really like having the biggest military in the world. They like tax deductions, being able to get treated at an ER if they happen to not have insurance, being able to get out of a "traditional marriage" and the ability to have an abortion for the women in their lives (Bill actually gets the abortion thing correct).

These "traditional American voters" just don't like to know that the same benefits they get from gov't also go to people who don't look like them. They also don't like that women can control their own bodies since their religions tell them they aren't supposed to. It's as simple as basic tribal instincts; both the racial tribe that has dominated the country for centuries and the religious tribe that greatly coincides with the racial one.

Bill and his fellow conservatives aren't mad that these new "non-traditional" voters disagree with the conservative ideology of small gov't, more local control and American exceptionalism (This is bullshit. Ask any of these non-traditional voters if they want to liv anywhere but in the US, especially Hispanic immigrants). They are mad because they get "gifts" and "stuff" from the gov't too. And some of it doesn't go to rich white men like Bill.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Seinfeld's "The Contest" and feminism

Craig Hlavaty points out that today is the 20th anniversary of the famous Seinfeld episode.

On November 18, 1992, the creators and writers of Seinfeld posed a serious question to Americans, just weeks after they elected Bill Clinton as their new president.
"How long can a modern human go without masturbating?" they asked, without even using the dreaded M-word, with more than 22 minutes of side-stepping stuttering hilarity.
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But with "The Contest" the Seinfeld tapped into uncharted territory for television. The phrase "master of my domain" would become code for taming your lustful onanistic urges.

Today if a current sitcom tackled this same subject it wouldn't be a big deal. Censors in 1992 were still scared of the m-word. We were all still two years away from the Jocelyn Elders debacle too.

And with porn so prevalent on smart phones now, the novelty of jacking it to a copy of Glamour is sweetly-innocent.

Even the concept of a woman masturbating -- giggle giggle -- was foreign in 1992. The fact that Elaine got her rocks off to the spank bank images of John F. Kennedy Jr. in her aerobics class helped string the Kennedy thread through the history of the series.

I love Seinfeld and I love this episode first because it's really funny. Masturbation is a universal human act, thus it's very relatable. And because our society is so uptight about sex, it serves as good comedy. But I also love this episode because it let Elaine bust stereotypes about women and their sexuality. Elaine did this constantly on the show. But Julia Louis Dreyfus's performance really sticks out in this episode.

Elaine has the same sexual urges as the three male characters. But as it pertains to the contest, she has to put up more money because they hold the stereotypical notion that women don't crave sex as much as men do. Elaine proves just as willing to express her sexual desires as the other guys. And that's not something unique to this episode. Elaine is consistently portrayed as a very sexually active woman; one calls to mind the sponge episode where she rushes to buy as many forms of the contraception she likes before they are taken off the market.

Despite Elaine losing the contest (as noted above due to her JFK Jr fantasy) and being sexually active in general, she isn't criticized or demeaned as a slut/whore/prostitute. She is allowed autonomy over her body and the freedom to express he sexual desires as she wishes. Aside from an episode or two, she is generally portrayed as a happy, successful, and single person.

Women's autonomy over their body, whether it's abortion or their sexual desires, are still treated as taboo subjects, if they are addressed at all. You can probably find a bunch of male masturbation jokes, not to mention the glorification of men sleeping with as many women as they can. One only has to remember the Sandra Fluke issue (wherein conservatives called her a slut for wanting contraception) to see that women are still degraded for expressing themselves sexually.

Elaine was a great female role model for me when I was growing up. She showed me that women didn't have to conform to the stereotypes that society has created and that feminism has been working to change. But even as popular as the show was, it only seems to have marginally changed the way society treats women. Pop culture is only one part of that change, and arguably a very small part of it. But I would like to see more characters like Elaine challenging stereotypes and being good role models for everyone.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cabrera vs Trout for MVP

Nate Silver and I would be pretty good friends. We both enjoy politics and sports. Here he is weighing in on the American League MVP debate, which apparently Cabrera won today:

The argument on Trout’s behalf isn’t all that complicated: he provided the greater overall contribution to his team. Trout was a much better defensive player than Cabrera, and a much better base runner. And if Cabrera was the superior hitter, it wasn’t by nearly as much as the triple crown statistics might suggest.
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Trout, with his speed, aggressiveness and good judgment on the bases, was also able to help the Angels in other ways, such as by scoring more often from second base when one of his teammates got a base hit. With the more detailed data available on everything that happens on the field, it is now possible to quantify these contributions as well.

Over all, Trout contributed about 12 additional runs on the basepaths when compared with an average runner. The bulky Cabrera, by contrast, cost the Tigers about three runs on the bases.
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According to this measure, Trout was actually slightly more valuable than Cabrera as an offensive player, considering the timing of his contributions. Add in his defense and base running, and it isn’t all that close a call.

I don't have much to add. Silver knows his stuff and writes well. But in retrospect he seems a bit too optimistic about the voters. They gave Cabrera the MVP by a pretty good margin. While the media and older baseball people seem more open to stats, they still love the narratives they create. And apparently the triple crown narrative was too irresistible.

That narrative which places so much value on 3 specific stats shows how stuck in the old way of thinking they still are. The 3 stats are average, home runs and runs batted in. Batting average is only part of the story, which is discussed in Moneyball. If you want a triple crown type narrative, it'd be better to use on base % or slugging %. But they still use batting average simply because it's the tradition. HRs is a good indicator of a good hitter. But it's incomplete and as Silver points out, the number alone doesn't take into account park effects. RBIs are very contextually dependent. Driving in runs is certainly important. But RBI rate would be a better indicator of player effectiveness.

These narratives are everywhere in the media, sports and political. Hopefully, with the emergence of people like Nate Silver, they will fade out and more rigorous analysis will become more prominent.

Sore losers talk secession

Erica Grieder analyzes the secession talk:

All of these figures, incidentally, strike me as implausibly high, and if they were palpably true it would be troubling. Secession is illegal, however, and even if it weren't, every state is clearly better off as part of the United States than it would be on its own. I therefore understand secessionist rhetoric--in Texas and elsewhere--as a euphemism for more general frustration, rather than a serious suggestion. In fact, I would argue that it's precisely because secession is such a preposterous suggestion that it's safe to clown on about; that's why some people in Austin have started up their own petition to secede from Texas if Texas secedes from America.

I'm kind of interested in the question of whether a state should have the right to secede. If states are supposed to be sovereign entities than I would think they should have the right. But since we don't have to deal in strict terms all the time, we can easily say that their sovereignty has limits. And we figured out after fighting a civil war that the ability to secede is beyond those limits.

Setting those limits was a big reason the founders got together and wrote the Constitution. States had too much power. So we gave the federal gov't power over the states in order to create a strong nation. Granted, we've gone down a more Hamiltonian path in regard to federal power than people like Jefferson or Madison would have wanted. But the supremacy clause and the inability to secede exist for good reason. It's not perfect; see our federal drug laws. But I think it's better than the other option.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Differences of degree

I've talked about this before here. In that post I was discussing the individual mandate and the conservative rhetoric in opposition to it. Here's what I said:

The gov't forces everyone to do all sorts of things. The ones he mentions is one of the more important ones. A few other off the top of my head are; you also have to send your kids to school, you have to drive at certain speeds, not kill or harm other people, pay even 1% of taxes, and any number of things that no one really complains about.

So when people say they oppose the mandate because the gov't can't force them to do something they are just factually wrong. What they mean to say is that the gov't can't force them to do this specific thing because it crosses some sort of line. And once you acknowledge that we are just arguing over differences in degree. We aren't arguing over the difference between freedom and tyranny. I get that people use inflamed rhetoric in order to try and make their point more effectively. But the reality is much different than the rhetoric. And if that was acknowledged perhaps more constructive policies would get passed.

The talk in DC has turned to taxes. And Wick Allison makes this point:

The Republican Party can appeal to “Judeo-Christian values” as long as the sun shines and their voices hold out. But they’ve abandoned the most basic moral value of all: fairness. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity. But tell that to minorities, to single women, to working-class whites. Even 44 percent of voters who earn over $200,000 a year voted for Obama, the candidate who promised to raise their taxes.

We all know that eliminating the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy will not make much of a difference in the deficit ($42 billion a year, by most estimates). But anybody who preaches on that point will find himself talking to an empty auditorium. And if raising taxes on the rich is redistributionist socialism, someone should should have told Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan, whose rates on the rich were 91, 70, and 50 percent.

You can argue a 91% tax rate is tyrannical. It certainly would be for someone earning less than millions. Maybe 50% is too much for someone making less than 75k. But that is not our tax policy anymore. We are arguing over as little as 3%. When the rates are ~ 30%, 3% is not the difference between freedom and tyranny. This is often lost amid policy discussions.

It's beneficial for both sides to frame debates in the most dire terms. But some things simply don't meet that criteria. When it comes to taxes, we'd be much better off (I'd argue more free) if the narrative wasn't dominated by conservative doomsaying and liberal fear over that type of reaction.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chris Christie and rational choice

Daniel Larison on Republican spin regarding the election and Christie:

It’s a reminder that it was never Christie that these activists liked. What these activists liked was the reliable partisanship that he seemed to practice. When he didn’t act the part of the angry partisan that they were used to seeing, and instead acted as a self-interested politician and responsible state official would, they no longer had any use for him. The fact that he had been considered an effective surrogate for Romney over the last several months is quickly forgotten, and all that remains is the idea that Christie "betrayed" the cause by doing something that any other official in his position would have done.

First of all, I highly, highly doubt the hurricane or Christie's actions had any significant effect on the election. What I thought was interesting in reading Larison was what motivated Christie to act the way he did.

Being a reliable partisan is often a good way to act rationally. When I say act rationally, I'm assuming that getting reelected is the top ranked priority, or at least one of the highest priorities, for a politician. Christie's constituents were in trouble. So he acted to try and help them. And that meant working with Obama.

The people of New Jersey, and most everyone dealing with a situation like this, don't care about partisanship. At that point it's simply about protecting their life and property. Whoever can get the job done is who they will look to, and that happens to be the federal gov't. Republicans outside of New Jersey don't care about that. So when they pushed back at Christie for embracing Obama's help, Christie pushed back at them because his interests didn't coincide with theirs.

Even if Christie is interested in running for national office I think his actions make sense within a rational choice model. Having good partisan credentials is important when running for president. But given this situation, I think it was a smart move to value appearing to be a good governor concerned about his constituents rather than appeasing the Republican party.

I could be persuaded that Christie could have handled the situation differently around the edges. He can be assertive with the media, which I generally like. But for the most part I think what he did makes a lot of sense, and it happened to be the right thing to do for the people of New Jersey, at least as best as I can tell. And again, I think it's ridiculous to think this had any significant effect on the presidential election. That's just Republican spin and/or them refusing to accept reality.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A gif to brighten up your day

It's been busy at work. So I haven't had much time to post. Plus with the hurricane and the dumb horse race coverage of the election there haven't been many things to post on. But I wanted to post this gif of one of my favorite people, Alison Brie, because she always brightens up my day.





Friday, October 26, 2012

Polling on god's will

In light of Richard Mourdock's comments, Robert Jones over that The Monkey Cage tells us what the polling says regarding people's beliefs about god's will:

If we start with Mourdock’s basic affirmation that all events, even terrible ones, are part of God’s will, Mourdock has considerable company, both historically and among white evangelical Protestants. This conundrum has vexed Christian theologians enough that the debate has a name: “theodicy” describes various strategies for reconciling the belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God with the undeniable existence of evil in the world. And today, most Americans affirm the basic premise of an omnipotent God. According to a survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute last year, most Americans (56%) agree that “God is in control of everything in the world,” while 34% disagree and 8% say they do not believe in God. Among white evangelical Protestants, this number rises to 84%, with only 15% in disagreement.

I don't doubt those people believe it in theory. But I'm glad that the poll asked about this:

However, the data also shows that the lived experience of evil and suffering in the world cuts against certainty at the level of religious belief, and has a visible impact on what policies Americans are willing to enshrine in the law. Theologically, nearly 1-in-5 (19%) Americans – and 12% of white evangelical Protestants – say that seeing innocent people suffer sometimes causes them to have doubts about God.

It's easy to believe god has some wonderful plan for you if you are born into a nice and healthy lifestyle. I thought the same thing for a long time. But life experience often leads to this:

In other words, despite the religious conviction that God is in control of all things and abortion is morally wrong, strong majorities of Americans (79%) and white evangelical Protestants (66%) believe that women should be able to obtain a legal abortion in cases of rape.

What these numbers show is that many Americans, and an overwhelming majority of white evangelical Protestants, do affirm a theological principle, which, if followed to its logical conclusion, would conclude that pregnancy, even in the case of rape, is something within God’s control and therefore to be accepted. For at least some, however, the suffering caused by difficult cases like these cause them to have deep theological doubts about the very existence of God. And for most white evangelical Protestants, and even more Americans, ambivalence about very difficult cases, and compassion for human suffering, creates a distinct reticence to harden their ideal theological convictions into concrete public policy.

I'm actually kind of encouraged by this. People can be very willing to ignore things that contradict what they already have an opinion on. But a lot of people can see the logical problems that something like a belief in god's will can often present and come to a different conclusion about policy than their theory should require. I don't wish bad things on people. But I hope those who hold strictly hold their belief in god's will could become more aware of problems that come about in the real world that conflate with a rosy picture of what they think god's plan is.

Amazon threatens corporate America

Matt Yglesias explains:

But what makes Amazon not just amazing but downright dangerous is that as a financial matter it has something even better than profits—the boundless faith of the investment community. You can think of a company's stock price as jointly determined by its profits ("earnings") and by Wall Street's level of optimism about the future, expressed as a price-to-earnings ratio.

In any line of business where you're earning healthy profits you always need to worry that a competitor will undercut you on price. But normally you can also have some confidence that they'll be restrained in their price cutting by the need to maintain profits of their own. Amazon is totally off the leash in this regard. Wall Street treats it like a brand new startup that just needs to think about growth and can find a viable business model later. Which means that if they come after you, you have no recourse. Your profits are going to shrink, and your investors are going to punish you for it but Amazon's profits don't necessarily need to grow proportionally. They just need to show they can poach your market share.

Be afraid.

I don't have much relevant commentary on this. It's not my area of expertise. But I did find this interesting in part because I love Amazon. It nearly always matches, if not undercuts, the price of local retail stores where I live. The only reason I might not use Amazon to buy something is if I want to get it immediately. That's because the cost of shipping to get it quickly can be more than state sales tax and the gas I use to get to the store and back.

For now, the lack of sales tax they charge for TN makes it the best retailer. I expect that to change eventually, which could shift things more towards Best Buy. But that calculation also depends on the price of gas. With gas being so expensive it could cancel out the ~ 9% sales tax in TN. However, I guess rising gas prices could affect shipping prices too. But the reason I like Amazon if I don't need something right away is because I can usually get cheap shipping or, depending on how much I spend, free shipping.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The horror in Syria

Andrew Sullivan has the details, which are absolutely horrible. Seriously, don't watch the video in the link if you don't want to be appalled and depressed.

[M]ost activists have made a difficult transition: No longer demonstrators, they now risk their lives as relief volunteers amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in a conflict that has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives. An estimated 1.2 million Syrians have been displaced, and an additional 1 million are in urgent need of assistance because they have run out of money for food and other necessities, according to the United Nations.

Usually I have an opinion as to what our policy should be. I don't have a firm idea on this issue. I want to be able to intervene in some way to help save these people that are being killed. But I just don't know how effective our military could be. We've seen how our best intentions and powerful military just aren't enough to prevent more death; examples being Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. I don't have an answer. I just wanted to help make people aware of this.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Richard Mourdock's rape comment

You've probably heard about this asshole's comment that even a child conceived of a rape is a gift from god. Kevin Drum points out that this should be pretty common religious thought:

Mourdock is getting beat up pretty bad for this, and I think that's just fine. At the same time, can't we all acknowledge that this is just conventional Christian theology? Theodicy is the study of why an omnipotent God permits the existence of evil, and while the term is of fairly recent vintage, Christians and Jews have struggled with the question itself pretty much since the time they decided God was omnipotent.
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What I find occasionally odd is that so many conventional bits of theology like this are so controversial if someone actually mentions them in public. God permits evil. My faith is the only true one. People of other faiths are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. Etc. There's a lot of stuff like this which is either explicit or implied in sects of all kinds, and at an abstract level we all know it. Somehow, though, when someone actually says it, it's like they farted in church. Weird.

It becomes controversial because most people just ignore these types of issues regarding their religion. And for the vast majority of their lives they are able to ignore them. But when you make them aware of the logical problems in these situations they take half a second to think about it. It makes news or is controversial because it's such a departure from the norm that people become interested.

Like with most news stories, that interest goes away pretty quickly. People don't pay active attention to this stuff to begin with. So combine that with the fact that if they really thought deeply about this issue and how it relates to their religion in general it would probably cause stress, and it's a situation that Drum describes; the fart lingers for a minute, goes away and everyone forgets it happened.

To probably most people's credit, while I think they ignore the logical problem this presents for their religion in general, they seem to realize how ridiculous Mourdock's comment is on it's face. I mentioned it to some of my family at dinner (I know, I'm a great dinner guest) and they gave the standard "WTF, really?" response. So people seem willing to see how ridiculous this is. I just wish they would care more to the point where people like Mourdock weren't elected to public office.

Romney's religion

I'm not a fan of religions in general. And there were so many other ridiculous/horrible things to focus on that I never gave Romney's a second thought. But Andrew Sullivan makes a good point. I'm going to quote a lot of it since it's so well written:

I raise this because it is a fact that Mitt Romney belonged to a white supremacist church for 31 years of his life, went on a mission to convert Christians and Jews and others to this church, which retained white supremacy as a doctrine until 1978 - decades after Brown vs Board of Education, and a decade after the end of the anti-miscegenation laws.

Once upon a time, when journalists were actually asking politicians tough questions, rather than begging for a get for ratings, this question was actually asked of Mitt Romney by Tim Russert. It's a fascinating exchange for many reasons:
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There's nothing in Romney's answer that violates the old Mormon doctrine - still there in the Book of Mormon - that for some reason, people with black skin suffer some kind of inherited curse that will only be lifted after everyone else has been saved in the hereafter.
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But all this evades the key question: what did the Romneys do to confront their own church's non-secular position on the inherent spiritual inferiority of blacks? Nothing, so far as I can find. If any reader can find some, please send it to me and I'll post it.
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Notice also the lack of any apparent remorse, or criticism of the church's previous position. This is a church that can take a position rooted in its own Scripture and just one day say it's over and let's move on. Even white supremacism! And people still don't see how Mormonism - its utilitarian use of truth, its studied mainstream all-American appeal, its refusal to be completely transparent to outsiders, and its insistence on never having to account for itself - isn't integral to Mitt Romney's personality and beliefs. Romney will no more let outsiders look at his finances than the LDS church will allow non-Mormons inside their Temples after they have been consecrated.

I didn't post the beginning where he basically makes the point that Obama took infinitely more questioning about his religion during his 2008 run than Romney has taken this campaign. Romney has at least taken some questions on most other issues. But those questions have been mild for someone running for public office, much less the presidency. And this issue that Andrew brings up is yet another instance of the media completely failing at their job.

Romney should basically be unelectable. He's an elitist who has no clue how most people live. He is a politician whose sole purpose is to seek power, as evidenced by his ability to have any position he feels he needs to have in order to win office. He has basically no knowledge of international relations. And his supposed guiding moral compass is a religion that, as Andrew points out, has some very recent questionable beliefs, beliefs Romney didn't question and still won't fully condemn (that we know of). He's a power-hungry fraud. And I'm not sure the media has done the bare minimum in pointing that out to the country.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tomorrow's foreign policy debate

I mentioned on Twitter earlier today that I'm dreading the presidential debate on foreign policy. I'm on record as hating most debates. But aside from the general format, I'm expecting the subject to make me agitated just as much. The foreign policy discourse in the US is too narrowly tailored to the middle east and terrorism. And within that discourse it's narrowly tailored to just a few point of views.

I fully expect both Obama and Romney to basically have a cockfight instead of an open debate. That's because both parties assume that you have to run foreign policy like the fiction Ronald Reagan that Republicans have created over the past 30 years. Since Reagan's term they have interpreted the end of the cold war with the style in which he conducted his foreign policy, which could often be bombastic and filled with indulgent hubris.

For Republicans since then, you either conduct foreign policy like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or you are appeasing the enemy and making the country unsafe. And Democrats are so worried about being labeled Jimmy Carter that they conduct themselves in only slightly less hawkish ways than Republicans, in some instances (Obama's drones) even more hawkish. Then there is always the issue of Israel. Both parties bend over backwards to appease anything Israel wants. That often conflicts with our interest in helping bring some sort of stability to the middle east.

That combination leaves us with an overly aggressive and often contradictory foreign policy. And it leaves our resources so strained that we can't confront other problems throughout the rest of the world. The strain of our resources is at least one area in which there is some difference between Obama and Romney. When it comes to the military, Romney is a full blown Keynesian and believes that spending will create jobs. Thus Romney proposes a big spending increase for defense. While Obama wants to scale back the spending just a bit.

Even if you just focus on the narrow issues that will likely be discussed during the debate, there just isn't much of an argument for the spending increases Romney is proposing. We could significantly cut our defense spending and still be the overwhelmingly biggest and best military in the world, with the effect of decreasing the deficit or using that money to fund other worthwhile things.

I could get into specifics, such as the ridiculously narrow discourse on Iran and it's nuclear program. But I've done so before and will likely do so again outside the context of these dog and pony shows they call debates. I just wanted to get my distaste for what I'm guessing will be a horrible event out there before the media goes nuts.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Issue enthusiasm

As I mentioned in my previous post about jobs, most people care a lot about the state of the economy. More people care more about it when it's in bad shape, as it has been for the past 4-5 years. Kate Sheppard explains why this has led to less attention being paid to climate change:

There was, for a brief period then, a sort of optimism about what the United States could accomplish on climate change. President George W. Bush, already on his way out the door in April 2008, affirmed that human activity was causing global warming and vowed that the "ingenuity and enterprise of the American people" would help us overcome it. Barack Obama won the White House later that year with the promise that the next four years would be remembered as the time "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal" (a pledge that became a punch line for his Republican challenger this time around).

Since then, the United States has failed to do anything significant about climate change. The issue has disappeared from the national radar, even as the scientific evidence has piled up. Political leaders no longer care about it, outside the occasional obligatory mention, in large part because voters don't either. Internationally, the situation isn't much better. Despite all the hype about the 2009 United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, there's still no binding international accord that sets emission limits for both the United States and China. And this past June, a conference held on the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit -- billed as a "once-in-a-generation chance" to set out a vision for a sustainable future -- was similarly disappointing, concluding with a flimsy political statement.

The lack of enthusiasm for all things environmental is pretty easy to explain: It's the recession, stupid. Yet climate change skeptics -- a camp that includes both the hired guns of the fossil-fuel industry and some true unbelievers -- like to claim they are winning the debate.
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Americans' interest in cutting emissions has sagged almost in lockstep with the rising unemployment rate. Who has time to worry about melting glaciers when the mortgage payment is late or the supervisor is shuffling pink slips?

I don't have anything to add since Kate nails. I just wanted to say that I think this is also the reason for the lack of coverage of foreign policy and civil liberties that are affect by foreign policy/national security. The attack in Benghazi captured the media's attention for a while. But soon after they were right back onto the horse race of the campaign and the economy.

Obama's terrible record in regard to drone strikes or even things considered good by most people (like killing bin Laden or Iraq ending) are largely ignored by the media. If Bush had killed bin Laden before the 2004 election it would have been in the news constantly. Also, if Bush had implemented Obama's drone policy before the 2006 election it would have been in the news a lot and liberals would be raising much more concern about it than they are currently.

Not only is the wellbeing of the economy important in and of itself, it's also important for non-mainstream issues like climate change and foreign policy in general. Without enthusiasm for solving problems regarding those issues nothing happens.

The conservative narrative on jobs

Andrew Sullivan points out the duality of how conservatives talk about the relationship between the gov't and job creation:

"As president, I will create 12 million new jobs," - Mitt Romney, October 16.

"The government doesn't create jobs," - Mitt Romney, October 16.

The latter quote is the one that is bullshit, in theory I mean. I doubt that 12 million number is much more than pulled out of thin air or derived from a "study" not much more thorough than this blog. But I think it's pretty clear that the gov't can create jobs, and that Romney believes so.

As political narratives go, this one is pretty straightforward. Romney and conservatives don't like to acknowledge that except on the campaign trail and in certain contexts because it goes against their supposed belief that gov't is largely useless and just gets in the way of businesses and people's interests. But they obviously have to give the appearance to the public that they are doing something to help them. And they know the public cares a lot about the availability of jobs.

So you get contradictory claims in the same day because you have to appeal to your base that hates the gov't and believes the narrative you have been pushing on them for decades and you have to appeal to moderates who are worried about the economy and jobs. Again, pretty straightforward. But as a way to keep myself focused on narratives I wanted to post it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The narrative on entitlements

I've been meaning to do a lot more posts on how things in politics (or anything) are framed and how that framing shapes discourses, opinions and policy. With the election in the headlines and debates going on, framing and the narrative the framing creates are more apparent and in full effect. I only watched a minute or so of the VP debate. But the one question I heard was a great example of framing and the narrative that creates around a policy. Glenn Greenwald has the details:

"Let's talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process.

"Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive?"

That social security is "going broke" – a core premise of her question – is, to put it as generously as possible, a claim that is dubious in the extreme. "Factually false" is more apt. This claim lies at the heart of the right-wing and neo-liberal quest to slash entitlement benefits for ordinary Americans – Ryan predictably responded by saying: "Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts." – but the claim is baseless.

The first few lines are the moderator's question. As Glenn says, the way she frames the issue is not true. But since it fits Ryan's ideology he goes along with the narrative that the media and DC politicians have created. Even Obama and some Democrats have gone along with this narrative that social security and medicare are "going broke" as a way to appear tough on the deficit.

Ezra Klein talks about how the "going broke" narrative plays into politicians' desired policy goal when it comes to social security, one those politicians like to tout as being courageous:

Of course, those who say we should raise the Social Security retirement age — either the age of eligibility or the age for full benefits — don’t get laughed at. It’s considered a very thoughtful, courageous effort to deal with our entitlement programs. People who mention it often make a joke of how brave they’re being. For instance, here’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) at an American Enterprise Institute event:

You are going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security! Whoa! I just said it and I am still standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpeting.

Christie is far from alone in having this policy preference. Obama put it on the table in negotiations with House Republicans. But most of what the public hears is people like Christie or Paul Ryan claiming that the country is going to go bankrupt if we don't fix social security. People don't know that the country won't actually go bankrupt or that there is a fix to the "problem" that won't hurt the most vulnerable.

The issue is framed in a way that the only alternative is the policy Ryan prefers, and foremost that there is a problem to begin with. Once the issued is framed that way a narrative arises in which the issue is only talked about in the way it has been framed. And by the time someone like Greenwald or Klein tries to talk about different policy preferences some people have already made up their mind. So it becomes very difficult to talk about the issue and get the best policy passed.

Here's more from Ezra on why this isn't a courageous policy preference yet why it's so popular with the media and DC politicians:

The people wandering around calling for a higher retirement age will never feel the bite of the policy. Think tankers and politicians and columnists don’t retire at age 62, or even age 65. They love their work, which mostly requires sitting down in air-conditioned rooms. They stick around pretty much until they’re about to die.

The courage it takes to call for a higher retirement age is the courage to say that other people who don’t have it as good as you do should be the ones to pay to shore up Social Security. It’s the same kind of courage as a poor person calling for higher taxes on the rich, or a sitting congressman calling for a war he’ll never have to fight in.
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As it happens, lifting the payroll tax cap would also end up costing eminent think tankers and journalists and lobbyists and politicians a whole lot of money. Perhaps consequentially, it’s a rather less popular policy idea in this town. Many consider it an easy way out, even though it would be much harder on them. Courage and sacrifice for thee, but not for me.

That is how the issue should be framed. But it's increasingly hard to implement policy based on those facts the longer the "going broke" narrative goes on.