Sunday, July 29, 2012

Call to the boomers

In an earlier post I had harsh words for the baby boomers.
They helped to overspend and whine us into the fix we're in today. They could and should have taken up their responsibility for stewardship of the nation back in the 1970s and 1980s, when they became politically active, but instead, they lived up to their reputation for self-centeredness and embraced the promise that they could still have it all.
Bill Keller's opinion piece "The Entitled Generation" is more measured but thinks there's still room for them to help.
Fellow boomers, we have done more than our share to make this mess. It’s not our fault that there are a lot of us, but we have resisted any move to fix the system.
I stand by my harsh words because I doubt Keller or anyone else can change his generation's longstanding disinterest in the rest of us. I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.

A cop's take on the Aurora tragedy

I should have linked to this opinion piece by Michael A. Black when I first read it Thursday, but I got busy.

Black was a Chicago police officer for thirty years and has this to say about those who clamor for easing restrictions on gun ownership and concealed-carry laws:

Imagine the scene: speakers blasting, larger-than-life heroes and villains on the screen, and suddenly real gunshots, a man in a gas mask firing one of three weapons — a shotgun, handgun and rifle, with extended magazines for extra ammo capacity — into the panicking crowd. Even a highly trained, armed police officer would have been caught off guard. Try adding a bunch of untrained, armed civilians into the mix — this type of intervention could have made things much worse.
What I imagine is random firing by guys who own guns but who aren't used to thinking clearly when literally under fire. What I imagine is a police officer coming onto the scene, trying to figure out who the bad guy is (or who the bad guys are).

Which of the gun toters was the aggressor and which were merely defending themselves? Do the gun toters themselves know? What if, in the heat of the moment, the true aggressor diverts law enforcement's attention to a self-defender: "That guy in the tan jacket just started shooting!" You might think your fellow innocents, armed and not, would attest to your own innocence, but even assuming they are all law-abiding (and that nobody in the crowd holds a grudge against you), how many of them will have been thinking clearly enough to have been able to keep track of who started what in the chaos?

Oh, and by the way, if a bystander was hit by a shot from a self-defender, does that make the latter an aggressor by circumstance?

Yes, you're entitled to defend yourself against someone shooting at you. The thing is, if a lot of guns are floating around, it becomes a lot harder to sort out who started a gunfight or a shooting rampage. The likelihood of other people being hurt goes up a lot, too. Cops are trained to avoid hurting civilians; can you say the same for your neighbor who is merely a gun enthusiast?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Phone-hacking charges filed

I have to admit, I kind of lost interest in the British phone-hacking scandal from last year. While I delighted in seeing Murdoch's minions get hauled over the coals in the press, the actual legal fallout was excruciatingly slow in coming.

The first drops have finally hit.

Here's the Guardian's take.

Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, who both edited the News of the World, were among eight people charged with 19 counts of conspiracy over the phone hacking scandal, with prosecutors alleging that the tabloid also targeted Labour cabinet ministers and celebrities – including at least one person associated with the Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Coulson served as Prime Minister David Cameron's director of communications for a time. Brooks was "Rupert Murdoch's closest confidante in London".

The charges all derive from the illegal interception of communications, or, to use the popular but irritating phrase, "phone hacking". Be it remembered, however, that there is a separate investigation into whether News International employees made illegal payments to Scotland Yard officers for information. That investigation, "Operation Elveden", appears to be still active; according to the BBC two journalists were questioned on 11 July 2012, bringing the total number of journalists "formally arrested" to date to thirty-four.

This is getting juicy.

More coverage of the charges filed against Coulson and Brooks is available in the Independent, the BBC, and for a more tabloid take on things, the Daily Mirror. The BBC has a good, very brief timeline of the key developments in the case in a separate table that is part of each of its articles on the scandal.

(To see more of my entries on this subject, click on the keyword "journalism" at the end of this post and look for the July 2011 entries with "phone-hacking" in the title. A minor but intriguing side development occurred in September 2011, too.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Paternos miss the point

It seems kind of harsh to criticize the late Joe Paterno's family right now, but ... well, read for yourself what they had to say in the wake of the record-setting penalty levied against Penn State by the N.C.A.A.:
“The N.C.A.A. has now become the latest party to accept the report as the final word on the Sandusky scandal,” the family’s statement said. “The sanctions announced by the N.C.A.A. today defame the legacy and contributions of a great coach and educator without any input from our family or those who knew him best.”
Joe Paterno's legacy is tarnished beyond repair by the report prepared by Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan, which stated bluntly:
Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University - President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno - failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky's victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being ...
I cannot imagine that the Paterno family could say anything that would mitigate these damning findings. The family's statement suggests that they want to introduce character testimony painting Joe as a loving father, husband, colleague and friend.

None of that means a damned thing to this matter. Not a goddamned thing.

To repeat: Paterno and the other three men "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade". They concealed Jerry Sandusky's despicable actions.

I'm sorry the Paterno family has to watch Joe Paterno's name dragged through the mud, but he helped to create this disaster. It's a shame he didn't live to suffer the consequences of his terrible judgment. But if all they have to add to the maelstrom of commentary about Sandusky's crimes is a sentimental plea to remember Joe's many victories or his positive contributions to Penn State, I wish they'd do all of us a favor and say nothing.

Unless the Paterno family can prove the Freeh report inaccurate or incomplete, nothing they can say will help either the situation or Joe Paterno's reputation.

Why I like Craig Ferguson

If you've read much of this blog you'll know I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. An hour of concentrated daily observations on the news and politics (and whatever else strikes either of them or their writers as funny) is a lot to absorb if you're paying close attention, and with these two especially it pays to watch closely rather than treating them as background. That's why I haven't added any of the other late-night shows to my routine. (Well, I'd never add Leno. Not unless you paid me as much as he makes.)

If I could add one, though, it would be Craig Ferguson. He's a smartly self-deprecating and often delightfully goofy host. The times I've tuned in, he has traded in gentle but pointed give and take with his guests which has been entertaining enough, but for my money the reason to watch is for what he does when no one else is on stage with him. He trades in absurdity and pulls off silly routines with props that would fall flat in anyone else's hands. (He, rather than Stewart, should be the one doing the absurd "Gitmo" hand puppet bit, for instance, even though the political content is squarely within Stewart's milieu.)

The reason Ferguson came to mind is that he was unexpectedly put into a tough spot last Friday. As he explains in the video embedded in this Hollywood Reporter article, he had to ditch a segment of his (prerecorded) Friday night show because it made reference to the new Batman movie, a subject that was obviously taboo in light of the mass murders in Aurora, Colorado. Though his impromptu explanation of the incident was unwontedly solemn, his natural charm still peeked through.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Please don't talk about me when I'm gone"

In a New York Times article, the gunman who killed twelve people in Aurora, Colorado, James Holmes, was described thusly by the chancellor of his undergraduate university, UC Riverside:
“I think he was kind of quirky, just the way you expect smart people to be,” the school’s chancellor, Timothy P. White, said in an interview on Saturday. “Quirky in the sense that he probably had a wry sense of humor. He kept to himself more than he socialized. But he was social. He wasn’t a hermit or an introvert. He wasn’t a loner.”
It sounds like this man was groping for a way to describe Holmes as a weirdo without getting the university sued.

UC Riverside has over 18,000 undergraduates at present. Are we supposed to believe that its chancellor just happens to be familiar with its most notorious recent graduate? Anyway, if White had any idea who Holmes was he wouldn't have had to theorize about Holmes' sense of humor.

Tim, this is why big institutions have spokespersons. Let them do their jobs.

But White isn't the problem, though he contributed to it. The problem is that articles that try to read the tea leaves of an attacker's life after the fact are useless. They seek reasons and explanations: laudable goals, but impossible to attain. Time-limited reporters scurry about looking for anybody who might have known the subject, digging for factoids that can be put together like ill-fitting puzzle pieces.

The reporters and their news organizations call the result a portrait of the killer. That's a lie: what they have is a connect-the-dots sketch. The reporters have an image of the subject in mind before they start interviewing; what they want from the interviewees is a dot that can be fitted into that mental image. That's why all these reports sound the same, and also why they're universally a waste of time.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Curbing the habit in the South

I was heartened to read that Atlanta has joined a number of other Southern cities in enacting bans on smoking in public places.

It's a good sign as far as I'm concerned. Smoking is a habit without any redeeming quality, save for making classic movies more interesting (I'm a sucker for smoking in black-and-white films).

I know that smokers feel besieged and angry. I probably would too if I were in their shoes. But we all need to recognize what smoking's real harm is.

Betty Price, a City Council member and doctor in Roswell, an Atlanta suburb, voted against her city’s ban on smoking in public parks. She said the city spent $20,000 on signs and has not issued any fines since the law took effect in 2010. Although Ms. Price called smoking “filthy” and “unhealthy,” she said people should be allowed to smoke outdoors if they are respectful of others.

“If someone wants to harm themselves by smoking, that’s awful, but it’s none of your business,” she said. “A constituent asked me, ‘Don’t you hate cigarette butts laying on the ground?’ Of course. But we have litter laws.”

Here we have somebody — actually, two people — willfully missing the point. Regarding cigarette butts on the ground, I can't get that worked up about a problem that can be handled with a broom. Compared with the other harm cigarettes inflict, litter is kind of trivial. Worrying about it first and foremost is like worrying first and foremost about the mildew in the aftermath of a tsunami.

Which brings us to smoking's bigger harm, the one that Price has to know about if she's any kind of competent doctor. And I'm not talking about the harm to the smoker: believe it or not, I agree with Price that people have the right to harm themselves if they really want. The trouble is that smoking harms other people. You have heard of secondhand smoke, haven't you, Dr. Price?

Your right to harm yourself becomes my business when your actions harm me. If I'm standing at a bus stop, I might be in a public space but I'm captive until that bus arrives. I resent having to endure the smoke from your cigarette, and I will support restrictions on your "right" to harm me in that space and anywhere else we both have the right to be and I don't have the option of moving away.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Security theater at theaters

James Holmes allegedly killed twelve people and wounded fifty-nine others at a Colorado movie theater's first showing of the new Batman movie, according to the AP.

The event was horrific. Yet does it justify this predictable response?

Around the U.S., police and some movie theaters stepped up security for daytime showings of the movie, though many fans waiting in line said they were not worried about their safety.
Your gut reaction might be, "Hell, yes, it justifies the reponse". I suppose I can understand that. If I were waiting to see the movie, I might feel that way, too.

However, think about it for a second. The police have said that Holmes, arrested minutes after the shootings, hasn't told them why he (allegedly) committed mass murder. There is no reason that I can see to expect an army of copycats to rise up in his wake.

You might argue that the movie is drawing big crowds, and that alone might attract similar (apparent and alleged) nutcases. But big crowds are all over. They're on buses at rush hour, malls, open-air festivals, parades, and I'm sure many other places I can't think of right now. Movie theaters are hardly more vulnerable than any of these other gathering spots, so why are we singling them out for increasingly scarce law enforcement resources?

What we're seeing in that police response is what computer security (and more recently, general security) researcher Bruce Schneier calls "security theater" (plug that term, including the quotation marks, into Schneier's site to get a sense of his views on the subject). It's a bit of mummery to make the general public feel better, because the general public doesn't tend to think all that clearly in the wake of such violent incidents.

The thing is, we're in an era of increasingly limited resources, human and otherwise. We really need to start thinking more rationally if we're going to deploy those resources to their best effect. To deploy the police directly to the site of the shootings is eminently rational, of course. But to send them off willy-nilly to unaffected locations nationwide just because somebody thinks, "Oh my God, a theater was attacked; we'd better prepare in case this is a war on theaters!" or some such nonsense -- that's a colossal waste of money and manpower. How many real crimes will be successfully committed because the police standing a pointless guard at the movie house weren't where a longer-term, better-considered deployment strategy said they should be?

We can't afford security theater at our theaters -- or anywhere else. Rather than catering to the irrationality of the public, it's time for all of us to educate ourselves on the statistics of risk in our lives. (Schneier's site, by the way, is not a bad place to start.) That way, we can start behaving more intelligently, and make much better use of those increasingly scarce human and financial resources.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Brooks on elites, take 2

My earlier entry on David Brooks' New York Times opinion piece started out well enough, but soon got sidetracked onto what I acknowledge is a hobby horse of mine: I started railing against the conservative crusade against government and taxes. Brooks, however, wasn't just talking about elites in government service (and he didn't say anything about taxes): he was talking about elites everywhere in our society.
Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.
Though he mentioned government there and once elsewhere in his piece, he touched on "Wall Street" and "finance" five times (six, if you count the reference to "the Libor scandal"). Clearly, he had the financial services industry on his mind when he wrote this piece.

I still think the libertarian-leaning conservative elites who have done so much to sway the country's thinking in the last three decades must take a lot of blame for the rotten attitude Brooks detects among today's elites. But when Brooks claimed, "Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this", he inadvertently touched on another shortcoming of Wall Street's that he failed to mention but that I think contributed even more prominently to the industry's disgrace. Wall Street may hire the young and brainy, but what about the men in charge of those young and brainy hires? If those new hires were deficient in the virtues department, wasn't it their managers' job to inculcate those virtues?

Oh, you say, but Brooks' point was that the WASP elites had those virtues, but the new, politically correct elites don't. Yet even if you grant this contentious point, why weren't those WASP elites able to pass along those virtues to the allegedly more meritocratic youths they hired who, apparently, lacked those virtues?

Those WASPy elites were not snatched away by angels (or demons) all at once. There was a transition period, during which they and their meritocratic successors rubbed elbows. Institutional cultures do not change overnight, nor do they generally change without the acquiescence of upper management. So those legendarily virtuous WASP elites fumbled the ball when they passed it along to their meritocratic and apparently non-WASPy replacements. Or maybe the elder elites weren't quite as virtuous as Brooks thinks. Or perhaps all institutions were subjected to societal forces that no elites could have resisted, WASPy or not.

It's comforting to assume that "those people" were raised wrong, and that to fix society all you have to do is to fix "them". Yet this kind of thinking, besides being too conducive to pointless class warfare, is liable to distract one from bigger problems. For instance, if our elites lack certain virtues, isn't it at least possible it's because our society as a whole lacks them?

Or are you saying, Mr. Brooks, that becoming a member of the elite in this country inescapably leads to a loss of moral fiber?

(I'll admit that when I contemplate a Sheldon Adelson or David Koch, I wonder if that might not be true.)

In corporate America generally, including Wall Street, I think we can ascribe a great deal of reckless and sometimes criminal behavior to the emphasis on short-term profits that at some point took precedence over long-term strategic management. I've heard (sorry, no citations at hand) that on Wall Street at least, this was a consequence of formerly private, closely-held companies, often partnerships, going public. I also wonder whether shareholders' patience was greater in past decades. Perhaps, too, they didn't expect such large profits over such short intervals. Our corporate elites would have been free to focus on different priorities that redounded more to the credit of their companies and themselves.

Is it a lack of virtue that accounts for concealing huge losses in your risky investments, as JPMorgan Chase traders are alleged to have done? Or could such behavior be the foreseeable and logical result of engaging in risky behavior that goes against your best instincts, but which is required by your management chain, which in turn is under pressure from impatient shareholders?

You can always find someone else to blame, of course, and I'm not saying Brooks is wrong to hold the very prominent elites who are nominally in charge of things accountable for their actions. Yet we should be careful not to assume that their failings solely arise out of moral shortcomings peculiar to them. If we're wrong, we might shoot the elites (this seems to happen in the wake of most revolutions) but find ourselves in exactly the same fix once the dust has settled.

It's stereotypically liberal to insist that extrapersonal, social forces be considered when trying to explain people's misbehavior, just as it is stereotypically conservative to look for our faults not in our stars, but in ourselves. As a rule, I believe in the primacy of personal responsibility, and when it comes to the misdeeds of big business I'm especially in favor of frying those who were at the helm. Nevertheless, if "institutional failure has been the leitmotif of our age", as Brooks contends, it's hard for me to believe that such widespread failure is the product of the immorality of our supposed "elites". It's more plausible that there's something about how society has oriented itself — something about the priorities we've chosen and the values we've decided to esteem most — that has created perverse and unhealthful incentives, leading not just our elites, but all of us, down the wrong path.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Misguided wrath

A grieving family whose son was shot by San Francisco police a year ago is planning to protest that shooting and police violence generally. I can't imagine their grief. Worse, the official account of the shooting says the boy shot himself by accident, which I find hard to imagine considering he was shot in the neck. I've never shot a gun so I don't know how plausible that account is, but I can't imagine how that would happen.

However, the protest will not be targeting the police — not directly, anyway. Instead, it will be aimed at San Francisco's transit agency, Muni.

KTVU, Channel 2, has a story on the planned protest. The story isn't quite clear on why Muni, rather than the police, is the target; the only connection to Muni is that the victim, Kenneth Harding, Jr., "died after an encounter with police conducting Muni fare inspections".

"We want free transit for all youth," organizers said in a message sent Thursday. "No youth should have to worry about losing his or her life for not having a $2 transit fare."
(Free Muni rides for youths are under consideration, coincidentally. To my knowledge, the idea was not prompted by Harding's death.)

However, the KTVU newscast that aired this story showed footage of a member of Harding's family at a press briefing angrily denouncing multiple police shootings, implying that the protest is rooted in anger at the shooting, not at whatever happened on Muni before it.

As I said, I can't imagine what Harding's family has gone, or is going, through. However, this protest is seriously misguided.

Harding died during an encounter with the police. He wasn't run over by a bus. (Tragically, several people have died in accidents involving Muni vehicles in the past few years.)

That Harding's encounter with the police occurred after, and apparently as a result of, failing to pay transit fare doesn't mean that Muni was at fault. It is simply wrong to target Muni for this protest.

Nobody at Muni did anything wrong. Fare evasion is a crime. If you don't pay your fare, you can be cited. That's the law, and I agree with it. Like every transit agency in the country, it needs every dime its riders are supposed to pay.

Maybe youths should ride free. (I can't imagine how Muni would pay for this, but that's another topic.) But if that's the point the protesters want to make, how does disrupting Muni service help?

If, on the other hand, the protest is to focus public attention and anger against the police for unjustified shootings ... well again, I must ask, how does disrupting Muni service help?

No matter the reason for the protest, all it will do is to piss off Muni riders inconvenienced through no fault of their own. It might renew attention to the Harding shooting, but will it prompt others to join the protesters' calls for justice? I have to admit, as a Muni rider I'm not well-disposed to them right now, no matter how just their cause might be. I doubt the protesters mean to disrupt my day, but if that's what ends up happening, I'm not going to care what their motives are. It will feel like they're taking out their anger on me, when I didn't do anything to deserve their wrath. And my sympathy for them will dry up.

Trackers, not phones

Read Peter Maass' and Megha Rajagopalan's piece "That's No Phone. That's My Tracker" in the New York Times.
If we are na├»ve to think of them as phones, what should we call them? Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, argues that they are robots for which we — the proud owners — are merely the hands and feet. “They see everything, they’re aware of our position, our relationship to other human beings and other robots, they mediate an information stream around us,” he has said.
Implanting a chip in each of us would require a lot of work and engender huge resistance. As things stand, not only has the same effect been achieved without so much as a murmur from civil-liberties advocates, but we've each paid for the privilege.

Brooks on elites

David Brooks penned (is that now an obsolete term?) an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, "Why Our Elites Stink". Now, I'll admit, I consider myself an elite (though not an elitist) in certain respects: I got a pretty good education and have been reasonably well-compensated for most of my career. Therefore, the provocative title of his piece caught my eye and initially raised my hackles.

Brooks' little piece comes off as half-baked, but not for the reason you might expect if you're familiar with his (or my) general perspective. Brooks generally makes more solid arguments than what you'll find in this piece. In taking on the thesis that elites in any form are fundamentally "dysfunctional" and promote inequality, a thesis proposed by Chris Hayes (MSNBC and The Nation), Brooks makes some good points of his own but nevertheless seems to be flailing about in conjecture-land. I don't generally agree with Brooks, but I give him credit for making good arguments from reasonable assumptions and data as a rule. Not this time, though.

Brooks contends that the problem with today's meritocratic elites is their lack of social conscience — the fact that they don't feel an obligation to anything or anyone but themselves.

The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

To contend that previous generations generally lived up to a sense of noblesse oblige is to look back through rose-colored lenses, methinks. To the extent any obligation was felt, it was to one's fellow elites who also depended on the institutions in question, not to the institutions themselves, much less the larger society to which they (the institutions and the elites themselves) belonged. I'd say my contention has at least as much force and evidence behind it as Brooks'.

This is not to say that Brooks isn't on to something when he says that "The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous)." There is a lack of a sense of social obligation among many people in this society. Whence that attitude? I'd argue it owes a lot to the libertarian "I've got mine and you're responsible for getting yours" attitude promulgated for over thirty years by conservative elites.

You don't have to be socialist to think that we have an obligation to one another. We are citizens (and legal non-citizen residents) of the same country. What does that mean, if it doesn't mean we don't have neighborly responsibilities to one another?

Low (or no) taxes and no governmental interference in our lives are viscerally appealing positions to advocate. They are also extremely simplistic and totally inadequate to maintain the kind of nation-state to which we have become accustomed. They are arguably also totally inadequate even to the kind of nation-state we would design from the ground up if we had the chance. Conservative ideology on this score has devolved to advocacy of an Ayn Randian fantasy world — although I doubt most of us would use the term "fantasy" to describe that world if we actually lived in it. More likely, we'd call such a world "nightmarish". (Some in Republican-governed states are headed rapidly in that direction, so we'll see.)

What Brooks is groping to express — or, more likely, what he is trying hard not to admit — is that economic conservatives have been so successful in promoting every-man-for-himself selfishness, that we now find ourselves living with the predictable consequences. Too many people consider "social obligations" to be not merely contemptible, but evil. They don't think clearly enough about how this country currently runs to realize that we are all enmeshed in social obligations, and that most of us like them. We like Medicare. We like Social Security. We like that when natural disasters strike, our local, state and national governments have legal obligations to help. And we don't like it when our governmental institutions fail, though we often assume the failures are due to intrinsic ineptitude rather than considering that we might have put them in the position to fail by failing to fund them adequately.

So to the extent that today's elites have the literally anti-social attitude that Brooks ascribes to them, it's largely due to the ideals espoused by Brooks and his fellow conservatives. If he had only acknowledged the elephant (also the Republican mascot — ahem) in the room, and perhaps meditated on his piece a while longer, he might have written something more valuable and compelling.

[UPDATE: I later wrote a more focused and less tangential response to Brooks' piece.]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A taxing question

Interesting article by Michael Cooper in the New York Times using Maryland and Kansas to explain the bets different states are making with respect to taxes.
As state governments begin to emerge from the long downturn, many are grappling with a difficult choice: should they restore some of the services and jobs they were forced to cut after the recession — or cut taxes in the hopes of bolstering their local economies?
Now, the Times may have a bias toward liberalism or progressivism, even in its reporting, so it comes as no surprise to me that Maryland's decision (under a Democratic governor and legislature) to raise taxes in order to preserve services is portrayed a bit more favorably than Kansas' decision to cut taxes further in hopes of increasing its attractiveness to businesses.
Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who sought the Republican nomination for president four years ago, said that he was persuaded that his state needed to cut its income taxes and taxes on small businesses significantly when he studied data from the Internal Revenue Service that showed that Kansas was losing residents to states with lower taxes. “My viewpoint, and the viewpoint of the majority of the Legislature, was we’ve got to change our tax policy to attract more people and attract more businesses,” Mr. Brownback said in a telephone interview. “We’re just tired of losing in our league — I consider the surrounding states as our league — and we want to start gaining.”
[links omitted]

I have to wonder if Gov. Brownback is thinking clearly. I'm not saying he's foolish (though his fanatical religious devotion does render him less than clear-thinking or rational on certain issues), but these remarks make me wonder if he and the Legislature have asked themselves whether they truly understand why Kansas was losing residents. There is, evidently, a correlation between where ex-Kansans are moving and the tax rate, but as any statistician (or at this point, any reasonably experienced layman) will tell you, correlation is not causation.

Just because housing prices went down when you moved into your new home in 2007, doesn't mean you caused the downturn. Similarly, just because the tax rates are lower where Kansans are moving doesn't mean that's the reason they're moving to those places.

I have no idea what the data that the IRS provided says. Perhaps the IRS data doesn't provide crucial information that might suggest a different explanation. For example, could those fleeing the state be better-educated parents looking to escape the Kansas public education system's dreadful and much-ridiculed official stance on, say, evolution? When a state adopts such a transparently anti-scientific and anti-intellectual position, it loses credibility in the minds of those who would establish businesses that depend on rational thought and science, or those who simply would have their children taught the most accurate information science has to offer rather than religiously motivated claptrap.

It's not clear from the Times piece whether Brownback and his legislative allies are justified in drawing the conclusions they have. Their intentions are also suspiciously in line with Republican orthodoxy on the subject of taxes — enough so that were I a Kansan, I'd be asking the governor to prove that his assertion is the result of honest and thorough analysis rather than the ideologically determined outcome of a cursory examination of insufficient data.

And I'm asking the Times to give Brownback a chance to defend his tendentious statement. I think reporter Cooper and the paper owe him that.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Scientology: religion or racket?

Perusing a longish article in The Hollywood Reporter about Katie Holmes' and Tom Cruise's divorce — a subject which, I hasten to add, I have not been following in any detail (oh shut up, "methinks he doth protest too much"-ers) — I was struck by the lengths to which the Church of Scientology goes to discredit its critics. Some people consider the Catholic Church to set the bar for insular, self-protective organizations, but the Catholic Church is almost masochistic in the amount of self-criticism it tolerates compared to Scientology.

Then it occurred to me that the only thing that makes people more defensive than assailing their cherished truths is threatening their livelihood.

If you're still on the fence about whether Scientology is a religion or not, ask yourself this: does a belief system worthy of respect expend so much energy, time and money on silencing dissent and preventing believers from ceasing to follow the belief system?

(Yeah, certain sects of Islam might. Does that mean it's acceptable for Scientology, or anybody else, to follow their example?)

While I've always felt that Scientology is a dangerous cult, it now seems clear that its leadership isn't just a bunch of misguided zealots. They're scam artists who are fighting to keep their income stream flowing, and that won't happen if bad press turns off would-be recruits.

But don't take my word for it. Here's an observation by Charles Kimball, a professor of religion whose book When Religion Becomes Evil is a good read so far.

Authentic religion engages the intellect as people wrestle with the mystery of existence and the challenges of living in an imperfect world. Conversely, blind obedience is a sure sign of corrupt religion. Beware of any religious movement that seems to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents.
It's actually hard to prove that Scientology limits the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents, because it does such a stellar job of limiting their physical freedom. That's about as strong a sign as can be that the most charitable interpretation of Scientology is that it is a corrupt religion.

The far more plausible explanation, though, is that Scientology is a colossal scam.

Stop calling it "the God particle"

The recent announcement of the apparent observation of the Higgs boson has gotten some media attention. A lot of it, actually. So much that I can't be bothered to link to any particular story. (I haven't read any of them.)

If you want to know more, search for "Higgs boson". Just please, stop searching for, or even thinking about, the term "God particle".

That's a horrible expression dreamed up by physicist Leon Lederman, according to the Wikipedia article on the Higgs boson. When the concept was largely unknown to the public the term might not have been so objectionable, but now it's a tired and embarrassingly sophomoric joke. It's also impolitic, as Peter Higgs himself points out.

Higgs, an atheist himself, is displeased that the Higgs particle is nicknamed the "God particle", because the term "might offend people who are religious".
The Higgs boson is neither evidence of God nor a proxy for Him, so enough with that stupid nickname. It's the Higgs boson. Surely that's not too difficult to use in everyday conversation.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Young vs. old

This probably isn't news to most of you, but the biggest chasm in outlook in the U.S. today isn't between the 1% and the 99%, but between the young and the old, as David Leonhardt's Op-Ed piece in the New York Times of a couple of weeks ago argues.
Beyond political parties, the two have different views on many of the biggest questions before the country. The young not only favor gay marriage and school funding more strongly; they are also notably less religious, more positive toward immigrants, less hostile to Social Security cuts and military cuts and more optimistic about the country’s future. They are both more open to change and more confident that life in the United States will remain good.
The hostility toward public education funding by a majority of the electorate across the country could be seen (and I had seen it) as a campaign driven by a resurgent libertarianism ("let me educate my kids like I want them educated") and a religious conservatism that embraced libertarianism on this front because it was convenient ("let me educate my kids so they have an appropriate respect for my religion, not like the godless secularists you liberal fantasists are creating in the public schools"). But it could also, and more cynically, be seen as a kind of protectionism for the older crowd ("if it's a choice between my elder care facilities and the schools, keep your mitts off my elder care facilities").

As the late-born offspring of Greatest Generation parents who are now gone, I was and am willing to support that generation: they gave a hell of a lot for this country and helped to make it the powerhouse it is today. However, as a cynical member of the generation immediately following the baby boomers, I have a lot less sympathy for the boomers. They helped to overspend and whine us into the fix we're in today. They could and should have taken up their responsibility for stewardship of the nation back in the 1970s and 1980s, when they became politically active, but instead, they lived up to their reputation for self-centeredness and embraced the promise that they could still have it all. Instead of recognizing that Jimmy Carter was trying to take the country in a new, better direction and that it would be a long, hard slog to get the country off of fossil fuels and a fiscally ruinous Cold War arms race (an arms race that did ruin the U.S.S.R. and led to its downfall), the boomers joined with my parents' generation to elect Reagan, whose "morning in America" proved a false dawn indeed. (The Greatest Generation had its blind spots, like the rest of us.) Reagan's administration led, philosophically, to the disastrous GOP of today, whose agenda's hallmarks are rampant anti-intellectualism, blind fealty to religious authoritarianism, unthinking acceptance of absolutely nonsensical fiscal policy, and a contempt for anyone who dares to question even the tiniest part of the agenda.

The Greatest Generation is, literally I'm afraid, dying off. I'm pretty sure that by the time any substantive change occurs in the benefits for the elderly, they'll be all but gone. To the extent, therefore, that the elderly are the ones getting in the way of what needs to be done to keep this country — to keep this planet — running in the long term, I feel no compunction saying, "the hell with them". My apologies to those of the boomer generation who understand this country's problems and have been trying to fix them: you're simply outnumbered and outvoted. The young and the educated have to take charge of this country's future, because the older generation has shown no indication that it has the ability or will to do so.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The hundred-million-dollar man

According to Politico, the Romney campaign "raised more than $100 million in June".

I would love to see the statistical distribution of both the sizes of the donations and the income of the donors. I have a hard time imagining the lion's share came as small donations from non-wealthy donors.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom has two sides

This opinion piece in the New York Times by Kurt Andersen makes an obvious point that I somehow missed.
People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.
To be blunt, libertarians make for a lousy country. A country requires its citizens to have some minimum sense of neighborly obligation. Otherwise, what makes it a country? What unifies it? What makes it more than an arbitrary set of geographical boundaries?

Happy 4th of July.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Apple owes me an apology

Actually, Apple Inc. owes me two apologies. (And I believe I'm correct in omitting the comma that would ordinarily precede "Inc.") Here follow the company's offenses.
  1. Apple, through its iTunes Music Store, has knowingly and with ... well, perhaps not malice, but certainly with calculated indifference to my welfare made it too easy for me to give in to my baser, less evolved impulses and purchase pop music singles that I will regret in ten years' time just as surely as I regret buying that insipid Hanson song "Mmmbop" back in the day.
  2. Apple, through its on-by-default spelling-correction service in iOS, has knowingly and with calculated indifference to everyone's welfare enshrined "it's" as the only spelling of "i", "t", and "s", with or without an apostrophe, that inadequately educated people recognize as correct.
I await satisfaction.