Thursday, April 18, 2013

When our eyes deceive us

Conor Friedersdorf has a good post up about the coverage of the incident in Boston and how some conservatives are already reacting to what they think the media will do. Here's a point I want to add to:

There are times when journalists bungle this sort of coverage in ways that are unfair to the right and times when they handle things in ways that are unfair to Muslims. But as a general matter, tolerance is urged when the perpetrator is Muslim, and not when the perpetrator is a white right-winger, not because journalists only value tolerance in one situation, but because when guys like Tim McVeigh perpetrate terrorism, there's never an irrational backlash against white men.

That racial and ethnic tolerance will prevail goes without saying.

He's completely correct. And I think people have this reaction in part because it's a numbers game. Sure, there are some people who are just going to be outright racist regardless of what the facts say. But other well meaning people don't automatically start suspecting every white man they see is a terrorist or criminal after a white man committed an act of terrorism or a more normal crime because most of the white men they interact with on a daily basis don't do those things.

In the case of a white man doing those things, their eyes and experience are telling them the proper statistical conclusion, that not all white men are criminals. This one white man who did so is an outlier who isn't representative of the majority. It's an easy conclusion to come to because our sample size in the US is enormous. There are simply a ton of white men, so much so that even if they were disproportionately more likely to be criminals, we wouldn't recognize it as much because the number who aren't criminals is just so big.

In the case of a Muslim people the opposite is the case. A big part of the Muslim intolerance is also the media and the freakishness of 9/11 (that it actually happened and on the scale it did). But it's also that most Americans don't interact with Muslims at anywhere close to the same rate they do white men. If they did it would be just as obvious that they should be treated with the same tolerance as white men.

The difficult thing is that our eyes and brains seem to work this way naturally. We group, order, and make judgements about these types of things in our minds without actively telling our brains to do so. It just happens naturally because it's the most efficient way to process all of the information we receive in a quick manner. So what Conor is saying is that it's the media's job to process the same information we are all receiving and relay the more accurate data to us so that we can make better judgements. Because most of us simply don't have either enough data or the right data to make the best judgements, which leads to things like intolerance toward Muslims. So don't always trust your eyes.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Southern Heritage and Accidental Racist

If you haven't heard about it, Accidental Racist is a song put out by LL Cool J and Brad Paisley. I haven't listened to the song because I despise country music and rap isn't really my thing. But I've read some of the lyrics and it's about as dumb as the title would suggest. Yeah, their hearts seem to be in the right place. But jeez are they ignorant of history. And being ignorant isn't really an excuse when you take on a subject like racism, nor does it make anything an accident.

Apparently, in explaining himself, Paisley invoked the whole souther heritage excuse as a reason for liking the rebel flag and whatever other stuff he talks about in the song. Lawyers, Guns, and Money has a post up pointing out how you can celebrate southern heritage without doing things Paisley does, like wearing a rebel flag:

Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King’s birthday, to celebrate a Southerner’s contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner’s Light In August, and celebrate the South’s immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.

Scott Lemieux points out that those things aren't really what people mean when they say they want to celebrate southern heritage. A local story here in Memphis shows how bullshit the southern heritage thing is. Nathan Bedford Forrest (a Confederate general and member of the KKK) is buried in one of our parks, the name of said park bearing his name. Memphis being a majority black city along with a significant number of white people who aren’t racists, the city council decided they wanted to change the name of the park to commemorate someone or something that represents the city’s heritage without invoking as much racism (I would say any racism but I’m not that confident in the city council).

But the Republicans in the state legislature (who have a supermajority and control the governor’s seat) decided that this wasn’t a local matter (Yeah, I was shocked, SHOCKED, that they didn’t concede to local control despite “believing in federalism”) and are trying to pass a law basically saying we can’t change the name of the park. They tried to couch it in terms that didn’t explicitly direct it at Memphis and the NBF park. But it’s obvious that they only really care about a certain type of souther heritage.

The talk about heritage kind of reminds me of the line from Pulp Fiction by Marcellus Wallace, “Pride only hurts.” I have a similar attitude towards heritage and nostalgia. They can be good in small doses, especially nostalgia. But heritage seems like a waste considering none of us had any control over where or when we grew up. If I was given a choice I likely wouldn’t have chosen to be born in Memphis or many other places in the south. It’s not that I don’t like Memphis or TN or the south in general. There are good things about each. But they likely wouldn’t be at the top of my birth list. Also, how about a little less looking back at the good ole times (times that weren’t really all that good except for rich white men, which not coincidentally are usually the ones who want to celebrate racist southern heritage) and focus more on improving things now and for the future. Let’s do shit that’s actually worth being nostalgic about.

North Korea's latest hissy fit

This happened last week I think. But basically North Korea, or really just Kim Jong Un, decided he wanted to stir some shit up and said some stuff about bombing the US or something. I don't really know the details because I don't pay close attention when these things come up. I don't want to completely ignore what could be real consequences that are related to this issue. One of those things is certainly the horrible situation the North Korea people live in. And there are probably some long term, large scale IR issues to be taken seriously (such as the safety of South Koreans). But I wanted to suggest that we shouldn't pay much attention to this type of nonsense.

The media loves this stuff. A crazy dictator saying crazy shit is a great way to fill time on cable networks. My suspicion is that it's also a way for Americans to sit back and relish in how awesome we are while laughing at the crazy. But I don't think we should pay much attention to the crazy shit talk because that is the only information most people get about foreign countries. And that shapes their entire opinion about policy toward those countries. So when the leaders of Iraq (formerly), Iran, North Korea, etc. make their ridiculous threats Americans, their heuristic is a crazy person that they fear. And when Americans fear things, it's not too long before a significant number of them want to bomb it.

So my solution to future hissy fits by foreign heads of state is to treat them like children throwing a hissy fit. Ignore them. They want to get a rise out of us because a reaction from us strengthens their hand. It legitimizes their actions and thus makes them look good to their own people. So just let's just treat it as the empty threat it really is and focus on the people who are actually doing much more horrible stuff, such as Assad in Syria.

The war on poverty

It's been quite a while since I posted. I've been doing a new internship. Usually I sit around reading politics all day and something comes up that I want to write about. But actually doing things gets me out of that routine. And I think after I do things I just don't want to expand the mental energy needed to keep up my normal blogging output. That, and I go through dry spells where I just don't think I have anything unique to say, or I tweet about it.

Anyway, now that I've done my obligatory explanation for my extremely slow (some would say non-existent) blogging lately, I wanted to jump back in with some thoughts about the war on poverty. But I don't want to talk about that war on poverty, the one where we try to help people get out of poverty. I want to talk about the one that rich people and Republicans are waging on the poor, the one in which they want to essentially punish the poor for not being one of them.

It's not officially a thing like the good "war of poverty" is (despite my dislike for the violent rhetoric). But just look at some of the things happening to the poor or being proposed that would affect them. Let's start at the federal level. A big part of the economic crisis of late 08 was banks betting and losing on what some of them thought were good mortgages that were really crappy mortgages that other banks had disguised and sold to those banks. Some of those mortgages were given to poor people who didn't know that their interest rates would jump to much higher levels than what they started out as, thus leaving them unable to pay their monthly bill. When that started to happen in mass, the banks that had bought the (basically) fraudulent credit default swaps lost a ton of money and went under. That of course caused a massive recession which obviously hurt the poor a great deal.

More recently, in response to the spending that tried to combat the recession, Republicans and Obama have been going nuts over deficit reduction. Instead of spending more to help the poor, they want to cut their benefits. The Republican plans are bad enough. I'll note the Ryan budget which would cut taxes on the rich while likely raising them on everyone else. But as he has hinted at before, Obama seems to again want to embrace chained CPI as a way to calculate inflation, which essentially would cut Social Security benefits for everyone. That after Obama and Congress didn't extend the payroll tax holiday, which technically just put the employee side of the payroll tax back to normal, but still raised people's taxes by about 2%. So even Obama is proposing policies that would hurt the poor.

I'm probably forgetting a lot more. But for now let's move to the state level. Most states have sales taxes, and have had them for a long time. The problem with flat sales taxes is that they are very regressive. The lower your income, the bigger % of your total income you are going to have to pay in sales taxes. That's different than the way federal income taxes are done, where the lower your income the lower % of your income you have to pay. Those sales taxes obviously fund state budgets, which were hammered by the recession. Since states (unlike the federal gov't) have to balance their budgets (to some extent at least, they can't print money, but I think they can borrow), they have had to cut a lot of programs since they were bringing in less money during the recession. That has surely hurt the poor.

Now I want to get to the proposal that got me thinking of this issue. And not surprisingly it came from my home state of Tennessee. A state senator has proposed a bill that would tie welfare to kids' grades in school. If parents' kids don't make certain grades, this state senator wants to cut the amount of welfare they receive. If that isn't a clear indicator that there are people in this country that are trying to make the poor worse off than they already are I'm not sure what is.

And what is scary is the poor aren't just underrepresented by Republicans. They are also underrepresented by Democrats. They have nowhere to turn. No one is really looking out for them. The people in charge are too busy not prosecuting banks for blatant crimes, finding new ways to cut programs that help the poor so that they can solve made up deficit problems, or just flat out blaming the poor for being unlucky. And many of the people doing these things go around talking about how this nation is so great because it's a "Christian" nation. They complain that liberals like myself are trying to secularize things too much, that we need more Jesus in our schools, homes, and public places. Yet they don't have a fucking clue what Jesus thought about the poor and what we should all do for them. If they did they would lay down their arms in their war on poverty and fight for them as hard as they fight for lower tax rates for the rich and the rights of banks to operate however they see fit.