January 31, 2011

Vino Intercontinentale

So The Wife and I had another blind wine-tasting party. We invited three other couples, to limit seating, and limited wine to six bottles. I found a California Tempranillo, a Bordeau, a Barbera d'Asti, an Argentinian Malbec, a South African Syrah, and an Australian Shiraz (yes, Shiraz is the same as Syrah, just spelled differently). All vintage 2006, which I thought was pretty clever on my part.

Then two of the three couples canceled, with less than two hours before "go" time. We tried scaring up other people to come, but on such short notice, no one could. The result was us and one other couple with six, count 'em six, anonymous carafes of five-year-old red wine. We had our tasting anyway, and had a very nice evening visiting with our friends.

With the result that we had nearly two and a half liters of red wine left over because really, how much are only four people going to drink? So I took one of the containers I use for infusing liquor and dumped the remains of all six carafes in it, intermingling the grape juice in a combination never before or again to ever be replicated by anyone, anywhere.

The result: vino intercontinentale. Some of that wound up in tonight's spaghetti sauce. Some of it is in glasses being drunk right now. The truth of the matter is, it's quite good. I need to let it warm up -- we stored it in the fridge for some reason that made sense to us when we were inebriated -- but even a bit on the cool side, it's quite enjoyable. I don't think I'd attach a high price tag to it, but I'm drinking it and pretty happy.

Machiavelli On American Policy Towards The Egyptian Revolution

There seems to be some debate about whether the U.S. should be backing the Mubarak government in Egypt, backing the protestors, or standing back doing nothing.

Mubarak, after all, has been a good ally to the United States in a region of the world where that is not always the easiest thing to do; under his leadership Egypt has been both a leader in the Arab world and a symbol that peace with Israel and cooperation with the United States is possible.

On the other hand, obviously we want to see actual democracy in Egypt and if we take a principled approach to our relations with the rest of the world, the self-determination of the Egyptian people ought to be the highest goal we could encourage in that nation. We can be reasonably hopeful that a post-Mubarak Egypt would remain on good terms with the West, but not certain.

Standing by doing nothing, moreover, pleases no one and may embitter whatever leader comes out on top of Cario's current struggles. Egypt is the most ancient civilization on Earth and has the richest history of anywhere on Earth. So perhaps it is to the wisdom of the past that we should look:
...it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs o everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

Il Signore Niccolò could be speaking directly to President Obama here. Actions should be strictly motivated by angles for advantage, and public statements should come dressed in the trappings of the highest moral ideals. Prior commitments and loyalties should only be honored in fact to the extent that honoring them is actually useful.

Mubarak has been a good and useful ally. But that is irrelevant. Which side we should support should be determined on which side promises to deliver more advantage to the U.S.A., and nothing more. Outwardly, we should be piously observant of the ideals of democratic self-determination, human rights and liberty, and the free traffic of both commerce and information among peoples.

How can we do this? The most sensible thoughts on the issue I've yet read can be found here.

If we can be reasonably confident that the Muslim Brotherhood will not get into a position of power, in a democratic Egypt, then Mubarak should be eased out peacefully, perhaps naming Mohammed ElBaradi as the "First Minister" or something like that. After a period of time, Mubarak resigns and retires to a sinecure somewhere that, importantly, is not in Egypt. Then a new constitution gets adopted, elections take place with the U.N. and Jimmy Carter and all the rest of the hoopla to make sure it's free and fair -- since as long as the really bad guys aren't going to call any meaningful shots, we like democracy.

But if there is a realistic chance that the bad guys could take power, then Mubarak stays.

January 30, 2011

what do these celebrities all have in common?

Beyonce. Halle Berry. Tim McGraw. Jessica Simpson. Mariah Carey. Sean John. Sarah Jessica Parker. Christina Aguilera. Britney Spears. Usher. Elizabeth Taylor. Faith Hill. Avril Lavigne. Paris Hilton. Ashley Judd.
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January 27, 2011

Roshambo Economics

Usually we think of economics as studies in supply and demand, price and consumption, in a setting of scarcity. But scarcity can come not from the vagaries of supply and demand, but also from logic. And economics is the study of human behavior when choices must be made -- much like political science is also the study of human behavior in a realm of forced choices.

Another way to think about it is not like finding the "sweet spot" of optimal amounts of guns and butter, but instead trying to plan out a game of rock-paper-scissors. The result is, at least on the double example that I find here, a preference for short-term rather than long-term utility.

People want to eat as much as they want, not endure the unpleasantness of exercise, and still lose weight. Obviously, you can't have all three -- not because food, exercise, or weight loss are expensive, but because once you have two of those, the third is necessarily excluded from what can be achieved. You can eat as much as you want and still lose weight, but only if you exercise a lot. You can skip the exercise and lose weight, but only if you restrict your food consumption. Or, you can eat at lot, not exercise, but accept weight gain as the consequence.

As it turns out, YMMV, but the most common choice seems to be weight gain rather than exercise or reduced consumption. Weight gain involves deferring a long-term pleasure, while exercise and reduced consumption involves deferring a short-term pleasure.

The body politic makes similar choices. We want the government to provide services (principally social welfare and defense), low taxes, and balanced budgets. Can't have all three. We can have robust services and low taxes, but the debt will rise. Or, services can be robust and the deficit will make sense, but only if we pay for it with high taxes. Or, We can enjoy low taxes and reduced governmental debt, but only if we make do with fewer services from our government.

As a people, we have opted for long-term debt rather than deferring short-term pleasures of low taxes and governmental services. This is reflected in our current political dynamic in which there is much sound and fury but no substantial action over our public debt, and adamant refusal on the part of either major political party to meaningfully cut social services or meaningfully raise taxes. The behavior of the parties accurately reflects the desires of the voters as a whole.

What tripartate, mutually-exclusive choices show us is that humans have a preference for immediate over long-term gratification.

January 26, 2011

Democracy In North Africa

We're not anywhere close to seeing democracy emerge in the north African nations (other than Algeria). But that doesn't mean there aren't notable things going on.

Over the past three weeks, Tunisia has been a nation whose remarkable events have been shamefully underreported in the American media. As I understand it, the tough economic times resulted in a young man who could not find work, and took to selling fruit on a street corner, and then was arrested for not having a permit. Distraught over his situation, he committed suicide, and this set in motion a chain of events which led to popular demonstrations and riots. Just over a week ago, these reached a level of intensity that the well-entrenched President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was deposed. Popular calls for the institution of a functioning democratic government continue and the interim leaders of the country -- the military and the Prime Minister -- are struggling to find a way to respond to those popular demands, which so far seems to consist of issuing arrest warrants for Abidine and his family.

There are similar protests going on in Egypt. As in Tunisia, public demonstrations are outlawed but happening anyway, again led by calls for democracy on the part of economically disaffected young people in massive street demonstrations. They seem to have united around the figurehead of Mohammad ElBaradei, who has returned to his native nation at some risk to his own liberty to join the protests against the deeply-entrenched President Hosni Mubarek. Mubarak is dealt with as a partner to the U.S. because of his overt hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood -- but the really good news is that the protesters in Egypt seem to reject the Muslim Brotherhood as much as they do Mubarak.

While the violence is regrettable, it is perpetrated by the repressive, functionally dictatorial governments who are being challenged by their own people. The moral fault for the violence and people hurt by it rests ultimately with the leaders who clamp down on protests rather than recognize the sovereignty of their people. It looks like 1989 in north Africa; it remains to be seen if the result will be like Eastern Europe or like China.

Let us hope that the Egyptian, Tunisian, and hopefully other peoples prevail and new democracies, ones with true respect for the rule of law and human rights, emerge from the struggles quickly and with minimal bloodshed.

Beat About The Head And Shoulders

That's how I feel after a day like today. I need to remind myself that the number of people who go see doctors for problems, get prescribed medication, fill those prescriptions, and then take the medicine in the manner directed by their physicians is less than one-third. It's frustrating seeing clients not only fail to appreciate their problem but actively counteract all the good I've been doing for them. It's frustrating to have seen clients go through wrenching, tear-jerking experiences and then see them repeat the same mistakes that I pointed out to them caused the tears to flow in the first place. It's frustrating to see future plans frustrated by innocent-meaning actions of third parties. It's frustrating to have to deal with issues outside my area of expertise because the colleague better-equipped to deal with them is simply unavailable.

This is, of course, why there is such a thing as Scotch whisky. Would that I could enjoy some tonight.

January 25, 2011

I don't think there's all that many singers out there who would do something like this song today. So many of them are auto-tuned into oblivion and don't invest the time into learning how to use their voices like musical instruments -- much less writing lyrics like this.

This Is Not News

Why is it top-of-the-roster news for two days in a row that Antonin Scalia isn't going to attend the State of the Union address? I've serious doubts about whether any of the Justices of the Supreme Court should ever do so. Maybe one who was just nominated, as a gesture of thanks and support for the President who just nominated her and the Senators who confirmed her. But that's about it. Justice Samuel Alito causing a flap last year for silently shaking his head back and forth during a point he believed the President was misrepresenting a controversial opinion only highlighted the fact that the judicial function is best removed from the fray of politics.

Which is why it ought to have been bigger news that Justice Scalia spoke to the Tea Party Caucus in Congress. The Tea Party Caucus is obviously identified in partisan terms, although a few Democrats attended Justice Scalia's visit with them. I don't imply that in giving the talk, Justice Scalia acted improperly -- he did not. I imply that by giving this group the favor of his time and attention, he indicates a degree of sympathy with what they have to say. This isn't improper, but it pushes the limits of propriety. Some people might reasonably perceive bias from his attendance.

I attended a speech Scalia gave once at a Federalist Society function once where he received a hero's welcome and he clearly enjoyed receiving such treatment (as is only natural); he was careful to not discuss pending or likely cases that would come before him and so he didn't cross the line into misconduct. But it was odd to hear him castigate or lionize historical decisions in apparently direct opposition to the traditional view of the liberal academy -- he offered a full-throated defense of Bowers v. Hardwick and I was both put off by his decision to defend that particular decision, one which I thought was the least defensible in modern Supreme Court history.

I was even more put off by the thunderous applause given by nearly everyone present (myself and a handful of others excepted) at those particular remarks. I'd known that the Federalist Society was a collection of libertarian and conservative lawyers but I hadn't counted on my fellow libertarians being such a small minority of those present. I left the event thinking that taken as a whole, the event had the feel of partisan pep rally, cheering on the advancement of socially conservative causes in the courts. While no individual element of the night, by itself, struck me as technically improper, taken as a whole it left me with the impression of bias.

Now, I'm not entirely sure that it's hugely important that Justice Clarence Thomas misunderstood disclosure forms and neglected to include work done by his wife for partisan causes. Unlike the Common Cause advocate int he linked story, I think it's fair to say that Justice Thomas could have in good faith misunderstood what the forms were asking for -- he filled them out the way he did for twenty years and no one complained until now; Justices on the Court disagree on how to interpret things all the time. The news is that his wife works for such causes at all, because that it was creates the potential for a perception of bias.

On examination, it doesn't look like bias or anything improper, but it's important that the courts be perceived as unbiased and a part of that perception comes from the willingness of the members of the bench to make disclosures so as to display their impartiality. I see a lot of similarities here to the situation in the Prop. 8 case involving Judge Stephen Reinhardt and his wife Ramona Ripston, and the same standard -- one of disclosure but not recusal or a presumption of bias -- ought to apply.

I don't know what the Justices who are thought of as "liberal"* do with their time out in the public, or whether they or their spouses are to be found on the periphery of similar sorts of partisan-flavored activities. If so, it would be just as improper. I've seen two other Justices speaking at public events -- Anthony Kennedy, a "moderate," and Stephen Breyer, a "liberal" -- and both of them spoke at law school events about matters of academic interest. Why it should be that so much discussion about the political sympathies of these "conservative" Supreme Court Justices should be percolating around in the news, at this point in time, is very unclear to me. There is no reason to withhold similar criticism from the "liberal" Justices were they to behave the same way, and I have simply not looked into whether they are vulnerable to similar kinds of criticism. Perhaps they are, but for whatever reason they aren't in the news with it right now.

But if I were advising these jurists, regardless of their ideologies, I would tell them to keep as low a political profile as they can, and that the stuff mentioned above is not low-profile. The judiciary should be perceived as a resting place for fairness, objectivity, and equity, not as a political football. And since the media and the political branches of government labor so hard to politicize the judiciary, the judiciary should respond by underlining, whenever possible, that it tries to keep itself about the fray.

In that light, skipping the State of the Union address is not a snub to the President. It is a proper fulfillment of the judicial function and I say, none of the Justices should be there tonight.

* I put their media-assigned ideological alignments in quotation marks because calling them liberal or conservative does not accurately reflect the bulk of the work they actually do. No one outside those particular specialties really cares when they disagree about interpretations of Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code or the scope of ERISA pre-emption law. Nor do they always reach the results they do even in the hot-button cases for the same reasons.

January 24, 2011

Scary News For International Travel

You would have thought that security wouldn't have been a problem in Russia, unburdened as it is with concerns for civil liberties. But the bomb that the TSA will be looking for next blew up this morning in Moscow, killing 35 people who were waiting to enter Russia and apparently detonated by a suicide bomber. Naturally, everyone's hearts and sympathies go out to the families of those killed and the Russian government catches those responsible and punishes them as only Russians can.

Terrorism Russia is problematic because it could come from so many sources. Our friends from al-Qaeda are always on our minds when something like this happens, but it could be Chechen rebels, Dagestani rebels, someone trying to liberate South Ossestia -- it's almost like Russia is behaving imperialistically and making enemies along the way. Even if that is true, though, it in no way justifies this sort of violence on innocent civilians.

So Much For The Nixon Going To China Moment

In a move that surprises no one but simply continues politics as usual and adds further assurance that we will run our national debt into fiscal oblivion one day during my lifetime, the President has announced that he opposes changing either the retirement age for Social Security or the amount of benefits people will receive under it in the future. This means that the only ways to deal with the looming drawdown of the Social Security fund will be to a) raise taxes or b) divert money from on-budget programs to SSI or c) both.

Democrats, your leader has made it clear that he has no taste for entitlement reform. Republicans have already done the same -- not just for Social Security but also for Medicare. (But they are opposed to "socialism.") Without entitlement reform, there can be no serious discussion of deficit reduction -- defense is only about one-fifth of the total budget, cannot be cut completely, and our spending problem is much bigger than that.

This is the public policy equivalent of a gangrene patient opting to not take antibiotics and other nutritional improvements, and also opting to eschew debridement or removal of the necrotized tissue, proclaiming, "It'll heal on its own." No, it won't. Social Security won't get better on its own. The budget won't get better on its own. We have to cut, something, at some point. The sooner we do it, the less painful it's going to be. Just like pulling off a band-aid, it'll be better if we do it fast and all at once than if we do it slowly and over time.

What's In A Taco Anyway?

In a maneuver clearly calculated to engender massive respect for the legal profession, an Alabama law firm has taken advantage of that state's surprisingly liberal class action laws to sue Taco Bell for claiming that the mild, grainy substance they use to fill their tacos and burritos and chalupas and enchiritos and other made-up not-really-Mexican food is only 36% beef.

What, you might reasonably ask, is the remaining 64% of whatever was stuffed in the tortillas of your fourthmeal? The answer, allegedly, is a tasty and savory blend of water, isolated oat product, wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agent, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch and sodium phosphate. Pick one of those and go do your own obligatory Homer-Simpson-drooling joke. Taco Bell has denied any wrongdoing and says it will vigorously defend itself -- but the unfortunately common gastrointestinal aftereffects of actually eating at Taco Bell suggest that there may be some substance to the allegations that your "Mexican Pizza" is, well, just a bunch of fried fatty glop laced to the point of chemical supersaturation with monosodium glutamate. But you should have known that already.

So if you want good taco flavor, you'll just have to go out and buy Doritos. Seriously, go buy taco flavored Doritos. Taco was the best flavor Doritos ever made and for some reason the marketing geniuses there think it won't sell. But since it's out in "limited release" right now you can help me prove those marketing weenies wrong. When the bags of taco flavor Doritos start flying off the shelves, they'll change their minds. And my efforts to lose weight will be for naught, but I'll have my tasty taco Doritos as consolation.

January 23, 2011

Today's NFC Championship Game

My next-door neighbor is a big Bears fan. This brings a fine bit of midwestern rivalry out to sunny, warm California:

This was to have been a music video for the popular Wisconsin pub song "The Bears Still Suck" but the video was removed due to a copyright claim. I have no desire to infringe anyone's copyright. I do, however, have a desire to talk trash to Bears fans before a game I expect the Packers to win (with justification, as it turned out)
Enjoy the game.

January 21, 2011

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

This is what I get for being a comic book geek and a political junkie -- an auto-select of news stories from Google that takes me to a review of the premier edition of Steampunk Palin.

No, your eyes did not deceive you. Someone has gone through the time and effort to create a comic book called "Steampunk Palin."

In which she forms an unlikely alliance with the cyborg President "Robama" to fight an evil big corporation that's doing, um, something bad up in Alaska and turns out to be led by Al Gore. No, really.

And as you can see, Steampunk Palin has hu-u-u-u-uge breasts. It is a comic book, after all.

Bad Attorney Advertisements, Part 3

For the third installment in my occasional series of bad attorney advertisements, I have found a television commercial.

Embedding of the video here is disabled, so you'll have to follow this link to see a truly tacky TV ad for a lawyer. Now, you might think that a divorce lawyer would be uniquely able to produce something that could readily cast the entire legal profession into serious disrepute (and indeed, they are well-equipped to do so), the fact of the matter is that at least one other candidate for that the title of "most shameless TV ad ever" comes from that same "Hammer" guy. Frankly, this bit of trivialization of bankruptcy, while lowbrow, doesn't really go over the top the way a lawyer using the decidedly unoriginal nickname "the Hammer" can. (This other "Hammer" guy even uses the same stock clip-art graphic of a steel hammer.)

The lack of dignity in the commercial is apparent. But this begs the question of whether good taste is actually necessary for the ad to accomplish its purpose. Maybe not -- the point of the commercial is to attract business to the lawyer and he doesn't owe any duties to the profession to make the rest of us look good. It's hard to say whether Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro is able to discern what good taste even is, given that the commercial may well not fairly represent what he's like in real life. Who knows, maybe he's really a quite sedate, pleasant, and polite guy when he's not cheesing it up for a TV spot.

But if the commercial is intended to give an idea of what he'd be like as your lawyer, I for one would rather take my business elsewhere.

Why is that? While people might be looking for a zealous advocate who will get angry on their behalf and I would too, I don't think most clients with worthwhile cases are looking for someone whose mental health is subject to reasonable question based on their presentment on TV. Both of these commercials hint that "The Hammer" is a little bit, well, off. Particularly knowing what I know about how litigation works, I know that there is a "sweet spot" that you reach in every case, when the settlement value maximizes with respect to the work done. I don't want a lawyer so blinded by his hatred of the evil insurance company that he does not understand when the case has reached its "sweet spot."

Beyond which, what if I piss him off? Clearly he's contemplated ripping peoples' hearts out and severing their heads from their bodies, and that's just for people who hurt his clients. What might he want to do if you did something he personally didn't like? Maybe it's best if I just avoid the guy altogether.

Now, I can't fault the guy for a lack of focus. A good TV ad should have as a prominent element a clear, direct focus and I'll admit it: Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro has achieved in this respect. One might take issue with the nuance of the focus on display. There is no pretense that what's going on here is about "fairness" or "justice" or "compensation for the innocently hurt" or "healing injuries." Many other personal injury ads speak to equalizing the fight between a claimant with few resources and a big, scary, powerful insurance company. Others tout the competence and aggressiveness of the attorneys whose services are being sold. Still others focus on the money that can be obtained in court, which is after all the point of personal injury law.

But here, it's not even so much about the Benjamins, or even about zealous advocacy, as it is about revenge. For anyone who has thought about how personal injury law works on an economic level, it ought to be obvious that a 40% contingency share of revenge isn't worth a penny, and speaking as someone who has interviewed his fair share of potential clients with worthless cases, I can assure the rest of you that the emotional intensity of a client's desire for revenge has nearly nothing to do with the magnitude of tangible injuries for which I might conceivably recover damages on their behalf in a court. Once again, the fact that the guy went over the top makes me question his judgment and disinclines me to hire him to handle my personal injury situation.

Now, on to practical matters. You only take away one thing from a typical TV commercial and the thing to take away from an injury lawyer's commercial is the number you should call if you've been hurt. Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro is so busy explaining how much hatred he has for the people you want to sue that he only leaves himself enough time to say his telephone number once. It's easy to forget the number after the commercial is gone, because he hasn't hammered it into your head through repetition. What I take away from this commercial is that Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro has got more than his fair share of Teh Crazee. He's practically spitting in the camera at the end when he says "You call, I hammer!" But I've completely forgotten the phone number because I'm so astonished at the lack of good taste and common sense that went in to the commercial itself.

He tries to make up for it with the overall presentation. The whole commercial is a black background frame with parallel video windows in it. The graphics are changing in the right-side window, showing a series of explosions and fires, interspersed with fast-edited black-on-white graphics. But steady on the top part of the background frame is the name of Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro and stead on the bottom of the frame is the phone number.

YMMV, but I personally think this technique fails, because my eye is drawn rapidly back and forth from the image of the frothing lunatic in the left video window with the violence of the explosions in the right video window. I can't concentrate on anything at all while watching the commercial, and my residual reaction when it's all done is a combination of stunned incredulity at the bizarre emotional intensity of the strange man screaming at me, and fatigue in my eye muscles from bouncing my visual focus so many times between the left and right video windows. It's too much, too fast, for me to mentally process.

The Determinist Explanation

Because of the autonomic responses of the chicken's internal nervous system in response to visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli, moving through a complex neural network to stimulate the chicken's behavior. Likely, the neural programming within the chicken's brain was influenced by both pleasure and pain induction, perhaps modeled after previous experience such as when the chicken had previously crossed other roads and located a source of food, or an instinctual response left over from hundreds of thousands of generations of successfully-breeding ancestors which "hard-wires" into the unconscious motive imperatives of the chicken the notion that across the road, a place of apparent safety from foxes or other threatening predators is likely to be found, e.g., a coop. While our understanding of the natural phenomena which are the inputs leading to the particular behavior under examination is admittedly limited, a complete and comprehensive understanding of those phenomena and how they are internally processed by the subject is ultimately unnecessary to come to the realization that in no event can the chicken be understood to have "chosen" to have done this.

The Primary Reason Why I Gave Up Assigning Essays

I would not be surprised to learn that Bar Jester Jason Peters is reverse-engineering an actual essay from his freshmen composition class. His note to the female students of his college is well-taken -- this isn't worth suicide for them -- but I can find no similar consolation for the professors and TA's who are forced to read this stuff in exchange for starvation wages.

Via LoOG.

January 20, 2011

Multi-Lingual Legislatures

So far as I had known, the only multi-lingual deliberative body was the United Nations' General Assembly. But it turns out that the Senate in Spain is a forum in which legislators desire to speak not only the primary language of the nation, Spanish, but also Catalan, Galician, Valencian, and Euskara (the language of the Basque), and the nation includes many speakers of Aragonese, Asturian and Leonese.

One suspects that in the areas near Portugal, Portuguese is also a commonly-spoken language, that English is spoken near Gibraltar, and that near the northern border there is a fair amount of French going on too. That's eleven languages in a country smaller than Texas, five of which are spoken on the floor of the nation's legislature. When The Wife and I visited Barcelona, we saw many more Catalan flags flying than Spanish, and most people spoke Catalan (sounded like Spanish with a lisp to me) and their eyes narrowed just a bit when I spoke Spanish. Yet somehow there does seem to be a common identity, even if many peoples' primary identities are regional rather than national.

The BBC maintains that nearly all Spaniards speak Spanish as a first or second language, however; so the protest that there is a common language and therefore a common ability to communicate and discuss affairs of government is there. I suppose I can understand that spending €12,000 a day on translators who are not really necessary is a waste and people might get a little peeved about that. But really, is it so bad? All told the translators for the Spanish Senate probably cost something around a million Euro a year or so -- and Spain's money problems are much, much deeper than that.

Permanently Bald Othello

I suppose that Othello will always look like Lawrence Fishburne, at least for the foreseeable future. Not that Fishburne wasn't a good Othello, or anything. But I wonder if in this day and age, an actor could play Othello, or an artist could depict him, with a look other than Black Dude With A Badass-Lookin' Shaved Head.

Now, don't get me wrong. Black Dude With A Badass-Lookin' Shaved Head is a cool look and most movies, plays, and pretty much any other kind of entertainment media you could name are all enhanced by the presence of a Black Dude With A Badass-Lookin' Shaved Head. Even movies that are otherwise seriously flawed. And yes, Othello is a warrior and a shaved head is obviously a practical hairstyle for someone whose job description includes hand-to-hand combat. So it's not like there's anything wrong with depicting Othello that way.

It just seems so... obvious. There's more than one way to depict a warrior, especially one who is in repose, enjoying the fruits of his labors and his lovely, younger Venetian bride. One need not even have to have particularly dark skin to to play the role; such ultra-white actors as Anthony Hopkins and Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier have all played Othello effectively. And there are other ways to signal that some dude is officially a Mess-With-Me-At-Your-Own-Peril Badass than a Shaved Head.

Nevertheless, if Denzel Washington were to be cast as Othello today,* I bet that he'd shave his head for the role, too. What's going on with that? Why must Othello always be bald?

* Maybe with Connie Nielsen as Desdomena and Ciarán Hinds as Iago?

January 19, 2011

Three Classes

This post is about what exists in reality and how I've seen it, not what I think that reality ought to be or my moral approval or disapproval of it. On balance, I'm not particularly happy with seeing the world this way but I believe it to be a useful and accurate lens with which to understand things.

Class And Personal Experience

Perhaps the most consistent thing about the many phases of my own law practice has been the very wide spectrum of people that I have met, people from all sorts of walks of life in so many different phases of their lives. It's hard to say whether one's own experience is truly representative of the world under the best of circumstances, and my experiences have comes from people who are facing legal troubles. And you get a good sense of what people really are made of when you see them grappling with their troubles. So a substantial part of what I have to say here is based on the least reliable sort of evidence, which is anecdotal. I've little else other than media to rely on for observations about broad social classes, however – media both popular and academic, to be sure, but really, what other sources of information does anyone have about the way one's own society is structured?

Also having substantial weight on my observations here is a book which has been influential among my peer group, Paul Fussell's Class. Prof. Fussell wrote this slim and trenchant observation on American society in 1983, in an attempt to explode the myth that the United States enjoys a classless society. Fussell identified nine primary socio-economic classes in the modern United States – five of which he described as "proletarian" or less – and asserted that upward mobility between the classes was extraordinarily difficult even if one overcame the odds and acquired sufficient money to afford the kinds of things that members of the next rank up might acquire with minimal difficulty.

For instance, Fussell posited that a "high proletarian" would simply never be comfortable or fit in as part of a world of "middle class" people, because the high prole's recreational preferences, aesthetic tastes, educational experiences, and socialization habits would not match those of her neighbors. She would leave Christmas lights on the eaves of her house all year, change her own oil in the driveway of her house rather than take it to a mechanic, buy cheap beer to serve at a party when her guests would be expecting imports and white wine, prefer televised stock car racing to the Super Bowl, and so on. But more to the point would be that the high proletarian would in all probability never even get to the point that she would be in a position to make such a series of faux pas to her new neighbors because the kind of jobs she would need to get in order to make that kind of money would never open up to her – there would be formal qualifications for education and work experience that she could not meet, and social hurdles during job-selection processes which she could not overcome because of her lack of a peer group in the class to which she aspired.

The highest and lowest economic classes were, according to Fussell, at such economic extremes as to be functionally invisible to the rest of society – the very poor living under bridges, committing petty theft and scrounging garbage cans for their very survival and keeping out of sight of others so as to avoid detection by a world that hates them for their poverty; the very wealthy living in rarefied and isolated enclaves having isolated dinners served to them by their servants, in which the only subject able to generate any emotion was the pressing imperative for the preservation of capital.

The basic observation that the United States is a classified society, and that class boundaries are by this phase of our history significantly ossified and impermeable, seems so true as to be beyond reasonable dispute.

Real-Life Experience

In later editions of the book, Fussell added a new chapter, alleging the instance of a "Class X" which transcended the nine-tier system originally posited. "Class X'ers" engaged in the arts for their existence, could come from nearly any of the classes, and 'enjoyed' social mobility. Wealth to them would be irrelevant and if they exhibited skill at their craft, they could gain both fame and fortune and in that sense find easy acceptance in nearly every level of society. I have always been of the opinion that Fussell was induced to add this by his editors, who found the overall thesis of the original book too depressing despite Fussell's interjection of acidly humorous observations about the behaviors of specimens from all nine classes. The existence of such a class is in too great of contrast, too blandly optimistic, and too obviously calculated to please editors of large New York publishing houses, to enjoy substantial credibility.

Real-life experience shows that there are artists and then there are artists. There is an economic spectrum within the arts and the great, great majority of those who make their career in the arts do so in exchange for shockingly low amounts of money and live in tremendous obscurity. Those who seek entrée into the elite levels of the arts world need the right kind of education (not necessarily found in a university, mind you) before undertaking their careers and the right kind of peer network so as to be noticed by the right kinds of people. In other words, they already need to at least be in the proximity of other elites in order to become elite themselves – which is, ultimately, the definition of a class.

Real-life experience contrasts with Fussell's nearly thirty-year-old observations in many other ways. I look at myself – as a lawyer enjoying a good income and a superior education, I should fit in to what Fussell described as the "upper middle class," the third-highest tier in Fussell's taxonomy – a collection of people who have significant economic comforts, who actually want for nothing, but do not consider themselves wealthy and aspire to greater wealth than they have. But my neighbors are an aircraft engineer, a postal worker, an assistant human resources manager at a community college, a termite exterminator, a drywall applicator, and a retired plumber. Some have been to college, one (other than I) has completed graduate school. These people span the sorts of professions from "middle prole" to "upper middle"; but unlike the "upper middle" Fussell described, I actually know and socialize with my neighbors periodically. We all enjoy professional football, wear similar kinds of clothing when off work, we all sporadically enjoy nights out at various performing arts venues, and we all drink high-end beer and mid-range wines when we get together. The traits and backgrounds of these people (myself included) are all blended together.

This is not to disparage Fussell, who provides a useful framework upon which to build. But it is to say that economically, it's not necessarily any great shakes to be a lawyer anymore and it's entirely possible to have a very comfortable existence without the kind of educational and professional background that Fussell associated with the middle or upper middle class. Fussell's regime is not fundamentally incorrect – but it is too compartmentalized. It describes a continuum, not a stratification.

Capital And Class

At the same time, Fussell observed that there are people of fantastic wealth, people for whom money is so plentiful as to never be an issue. These people, he says, behave differently than those who have to work for a living. Real-life experience bears that observation out and it is enduring. They have to do something with their money and they typically put it in things like real estate and securities. Thus, I encounter such people as clients. For them, money is like air – there is always a lot of it around and even if they don't have it themselves at a particular moment, there will always be more around. There are differences in behavior and world view that come from that background.

Such people sometimes seem to lack anything one could identify as a "job." They own stuff, they do things, but there seems to be little by way of structure or pattern to it. Some day-trade online for a few hours a day, some scour real estate opportunities in something like an orderly way, but for the most part they don't pay a lot of attention to what other people do to support their activities. Like their lawyers – they hire me to do certain things and leave me alone to do them. This is pleasant enough for my practice, but in dealing with them they seem to lack a realistic understanding of what is happening on the ground with their own assets. Indeed, they are often unaware of the value of their own assets or the (highly variable for both better and worse) extent of their own creditworthiness.

More importantly, they don't always have, or at least have access to, the money which so permeates their existence. And they don't always live particularly well. I'm not talking about Mitt Romney flying coach to the winter Olympics because coach seats were the only ones available for the flight he wanted. I'm talking about trust fund babies who continually mooch money from their accountant friends while smoking a lot of pot and buying new guitars to ornament their beach houses. I'm talking about people on the make who try to put together eight-figure business deals based on half-baked ideas, and who have temper tantrums when their lawyers present them with bills for a few thousand dollars.

Those tantrums seemed inexplicable to me when I first encountered them, before I realized that my clients simply didn't have the money and were using their emotions as a substitute for the money I had requested. All the shell games with future money and investors' money they promised me at the end of the tantrums were proof that for them, the money was like the air – it was simply there, somewhere, and its presence was sufficient. Beyond that, they had never given thought about money at all.

The takeaway is that proximity to capital is the key to this class. Most of the people I'm referring to here earned their money the old-fashioned way – they got it from their parents, who got it from their parents, and so on and so on. Consequently, ready access to liquid money is not always a defining trait of this class, but money permeates their existence in a way that it does not for those who make their living like me and most likely like you, my Reader, by exchanging some kind of useful work – whether that is manual labor, intellectual work, or professional services – for money and thus survive.

Entitlement And Class

On the other end of the spectrum, I get to see people – middle-aged, sometimes even elderly – who seem to have little experience at all working. Their entire economic lives revolve around various kinds of entitlement payments from a variety of governmental agencies. Perhaps there is relatively more of this here in relatively generous California than in other parts of the country. But my experience living in Tennessee tells me that such people are found there in appreciable numbers as well. These are the apparently able-bodied people who always pay their rent late because they're waiting for their Social Security and state disability payments, which despite being electronically wired to bank accounts, always seem to arrive late.

What amazes me about dealing with this collection of people is not so much that they can survive on this kind of existence. The governmental entitlement programs are designed to achieve that goal and while the shoe doesn't always fit well, it does seem to fit most of the time. There are two things that stand out for me. First, a significant number of those who live in this way seem to do so with little real understanding of, and sometimes even apparent contempt for, people who exchange labor for money.

I say "contempt" rather than "resentment" because when I encounter them (either when they solicit my services or when I am evicting them from the homes they have failed to pay rent on) they do not evidence any real jealousy for either my station in life or my clients'. As best I can perceive, for them working is for suckers; why work when you can get the same money for doing the stuff you would rather be doing anyway? These are people in the entitlement system who grew up within it, who never really leave it for very long, and who seem to consider the ability to navigate it a fundamental life skill. They view others who lack those skills the same way I view people who do not understand the importance of having a driver's license or a checking account. This is why I refer to this group of people as a class – they are born into it, socialized into its values, and consequently face significant difficulties migrating out of it.

The second observation is that for some of these people, there seems to be a pretty substantial skill set, a collection of experiences and shared knowledge passed from person to person – a curriculum, if you will – that leads to a lifestyle that seems almost enviable.

An unemployed person lacking formal educational credentials can live in section 8 housing, in a bigger house and a nicer neighborhood than I do, paying double-digit monthly rent out of pocket, which may or may not be paid at all. AFDC provides enough money for the entire family to eat on – and indeed in many cases to eat out at restaurants with some frequency. General relief provides money. State disability and social security disability payments provide more money. Periodic low-end employment results in continuing eligibility for unemployment benefits, as well as opportunities to make workers' compensation and wrongful termination claims, from which both money and disability eligibility is extracted. The end result is that for one who is able to navigate the paperwork, one can achieve a comfortable lifestyle not involving work but including material comforts such as new cars, new clothing, state-of-the-art cell phones in near-constant use text messaging friends, and cable television. Should the rent go unpaid, they can frequently stall out the eviction for six months or more, and there is little lasting consequence for them as a result. When they get sick, their medical care and medications are paid for by a panoply of public assistance programs.

This may seem a lot when taken at first glance, but it really isn't all that improbable. In terms of absolute dollars, cable TV, cell phones, clothing, and even auto leases are not terribly expensive anymore. One suspects that the cars lack insurance, that cash is not always readily available, and credit is on a downward spiral. Still, it's hard to feel sorry for such folks because their lifestyles – the actual consuming they do – appears to exceed that of a large number of people who exchange their labor for money; they are able to engage in such consumption in exchange for conforming the patterns of their lives (how many children they have, where they live, etc.) to incentives created by the government and filling out the appropriate paperwork.

Abuse, Not Cheating

I hesitate to call such people "welfare cheats," however, because it's clear that they aren't cheating the system – they are working within it, conforming to its rules, exercising their rights. They comply with the law. That's not cheating. It might be something else we don't like (call it "abuse"), it might be a cynical manipulation of the system beyond its intent, but particularly if your ethic is that the system permits something and therefore you can do it, it is more than possible to work the system into a life that features things that many people who actually work for a living cannot afford to enjoy – not the least of which is substantial amounts of free time.

This is not to say that everyone who is enrolled in government entitlement programs behaves in such a way, which when cumulated in that fashion looks very dishonest. Not everyone possesses either the skill set or the – how to put this politely? – disposition towards the government's role in society necessarily to manipulate the system in this fashion. I'm telling myself that this sort of thing is exceeding rare. But I can't say it's nonexistent, having seen it with my own eyes. What I tell myself is that my own view of things is skewed; my own personal sampling of what's out there in the world comes from being in the courthouse more days than not, and the population of a courthouse is, by definition, selective to include people who have legal problems and therefore not representative of the population as a whole.

The Tennessee Taxonomy

What all of this demonstrates to me is that wealth and affluence are different things. There are those who do not need to work, those who do need to work, those who lack the ability to work. But one's degree of poverty or affluence is a variable independent of one's ability or need to work for a living. My observation is that there are three classes of people – those who do not need to work for a living because of their association with (although not necessarily personal possession of) capital; those who exchange their labor for money in order to survive; and those who get what they need to live by way of governmental entitlements. This is a continuum, not a stratification. One might have access to capital but still either need or want to work for a living in order to secure cash flow. One might have a background of life "in the welfare system" but genuinely seek real employment.

What's more, within each of these three broad bands of ways of life, there are degrees of affluence and poverty. Some "capital-class" people live very affluent lives, some have kind of sketchy existences. As common experience for most of us shows, some people make better money at their jobs than others. And some people are very good at working the system and some are not so good at it.

So it's not right to say we have an "upper class," a "middle class," and a "lower class." Fussell's term "proletarian" was intended to reach people who do manual labor, construction trades, and the like, and do not enjoy wealth. But it is possible to make a reasonably handsome living turning a wrench, if you do it the right way and in the right place. It is possible to engage in a traditionally high-status profession like law, and only reap a meager income.

One's class is determined not by one's social status, education, or even income, but rather in how one's subsistence is derived. This is a function of heredity.

One's affluence is not determined by one's income, but rather by one's consumption. This is much more widely variable than might appear at first glance and Fussell's taxonomy is either outmoded or was never actually right. This is why I've put together a new chart, a two-dimensional taxonomy that examines consumption separately from the means by which consumption is made possible.

The result is something that to my mind looks a little bit like a map of the state of Tennessee. I have it that way because it seems to me that those within the capital class will only be allowed to fall so low by their fellow class members – wealthy family, well-off associates, and so on – and will probably not wind up in abject, grinding poverty no matter what. And I want to reflect that while it is possible for those who live mainly on entitlements to live affluent lives, this is actually a pretty rare phenomenon.

Both axes of this taxonomy are not intended to be broken down into discrete units. If I had more skill at graphics, I'd show the colors fading smoothly in to one another. The curves of the left and right sides, representing the extremes of affluence and poverty, are not ones I'm married to, particularly, although the general shape is, I think, correct. So I'll ask your indulgence, Reader, in imagining it drawn more proficiently than I have done here.

Government entitlements and subsidies may also be perceived in certain kinds of tax incentives – home ownership, for instance, is subsidized by the home mortgage interest deduction. I include those who are employed by the government in the "Labor Class" because they do, in fact, exchange their labor for money, and therefore have the same intellectual system of what skills and activities are valuable as those who pursue employment in the private sector. They have simply chosen to exchange their labor for the government's money rather than a private employer's money.

I've struggled as to how to classify Social Security in this taxonomy; people say, "But I earned Social Security," and the benefits are derived, in part, on how much of the SSI tax one has paid throughout one's lifetime. But Social Security is also used for disability regardless of what one has (putatively) paid in to the system and the system exists to ensure at least minimal survival-level income for everyone no matter what they've paid in. One's retirement income also comes from savings and investments. The right way to treat it, as I see it, is to place it somewhere in between "Labor Class" and "Entitlement Class"; on my crudely-drawn chart, those who live mainly on Social Security would be right about the line between those two. One would move up or down based on what kind of other income was coming in.

Finally, should note that capital-class people will only be allowed to fall to a certain depth on the affluence-poverty scale, while entitlement-class people do eventually face an upper limit on how far they can rise on that scale. That is why my chart looks, roughly, like a map of the state of Tennessee. That is designed to represent the fact that there are floors and ceilings that apply based on how one's sustenance is derived.

The big point of all this is to define wealth not as either net capital or the size of one's income stream, but rather in terms of consumption – and to separate that level of consumption from the manner in which that consumption is obtained.

January 13, 2011

Here It Is In Case You Were Waiting

The coolest scientific name for any creature anywhere. It is (drum roll):

Vampyroteuthis infernalis:

Vampyroteuthis infernalis is the scientific name for the vampire squid. This foot-long cephalopod takes its name from the red-and-black "cape" draped between its eight legs, thought to be useful in enveloping its prey before eating it. Science is really cool sometimes.

What A Migraine Looks Like

Many of my friends have not had migraines. Some, despite many years of hearing people complain of them, disbelieve that such things even exist and probably secretly wonder if complaints of migraines are malingering. Even if they accept the good faith of the migraine patient's complaints, they lack the experience to distinguish it from a simple (if intense) headache, and wonder why the sufferer cannot simply take some aspirin or other over-the-counter analgesic medication and go on about their day.

Aside from the nausea, a big distinguishing symptom of the migraine is subtly distortion of sense perception, which is called an "aura." The aura is usually the first signal that a migraine event has begun -- for me, I will see an aura an hour or two before the onset of the pain. This is called an "aura" and last night I stumbled upon a video that does a pretty good job of illustrating what an aura looks like:
I suppose some people have auras that manifest only in black and white; I perceive them in color and more often as parts of my vision upon which I cannot focus, so they seem to be blind spots. If you follow the video's instructions and look at things other than the aura, it remains in your peripheral vision. Other people report different kinds of sensory hallucinations -- my mother gets them, too, and she reports the smell of burned toast in the hours before the pain sets in. While one patient's exact kind of aura may be different from another's, the common thread of aura is hallucination.

The word "hallucination" sounds frightening, as though the migraine sufferer somehow departs from reality, in the manner of a mental illness like schizophrenia. The video should demolish that perception -- the migraine sufferer fully understands that what she sees is not a part of objective reality. Rather, it is frustrating in that the victim knows that her eyes are playing her false but she cannot solve that problem, and there is dread in knowing that intense pain is likely on its way.

The good news is, preventative steps can be taken when the aura is recognized for what it is; analgesics dull the pain and I have found that withdrawing from areas where there is a lot of light and loud noises will help. Getting a snack sometimes helps, too -- it seems to need both carbohydrate and protein to be effective.

The bad news is, there doesn't seem to be any discernible cause to the event; it can happen at any time and it's not always possible to medicate or alter one's behavior to cut off the oncoming event. Once the pain sets in, it can echo for days afterwards. So for you non-migraine people out there, be happy you don't get these. It's a real thing, it happens to a lot of people (even professional athletes) and it's not just a "bad headache" or an excuse to defer sex.

The Acne Of Middle Age

I've been coming home for lunches instead of eating at restaurants for about a week and a half. Part of it is that my usual lunch buddies are busy elsewhere, part is a desire to conserve financial resources. I didn't do it expecting to effect a significant drop in caloric intake. However, that seems to have happened. When we're out somewhere, lunch will often be something like a pasta dish, a Mexican entree, or a hot sandwich. Typically these days I heat up a can of soup and make a small salad, which is a somewhat smaller lunch than I would eat while out.

I may have lost a pound or two this way, I can't be entirely sure. My complaint is that this shift in eating habits seems to have produced a blossom of acne. Like the acne of puberty, middle-age acne seems to blossom while one sleeps, resulting in unsightly skin appearing in the morning. But unlike the acne of puberty, middle-age acne strikes all over the body instead of just around the face. It's annoying and unsightly.

There must be something in the soup or the salad dressing, which I'm eating more of, that is giving me this reaction. It probably isn't salt or MSG; I would expect that to be prevalent in restaurant food too. I wondered if it might be canola oil -- I'm eating a lot of salad dressing and that's the based of most dressings one buys in the store. But I would eat a fair amount of salads from restaurants too, and I have to imagine their dressings are also based on canola oil, since they come from foodservice providers who are functionally the same as the manufacturers of retail food products.

January 11, 2011

Time To Make Hard Choices

A report from the CSM about Governor Brown's budget proposal is almost unremittingly positive, particularly given its rather dismal subject matter. It makes me distrust the objectivity of the reporter. The devil is in the details, but the big picture is this:
  • $12.5 billion in spending cuts
  • $12 billion in increased taxes, 
  • $1.9 billion in "other solutions"

"Other solutions" sounds a lot like "eliminate fraud, waste, and corruption," which generates my usual response of, "Wow! Why didn't anyone think to do that before?" I say that despite my firm conviction that there actually is a lot of fraud, waste, and corruption out there to eliminate. It's just a lot harder to do that than it looks.

Much of what we might call "fraud" or "waste" is really the result of gaming the system -- which is formally compliant with the law and therefore in something of a gray zone. For instance, is it "fraud" for a police officer, after having attained a full vesting of retirement, to claim a disability and leave the service with full salary intact, and thereby getting both an ongoing salary and an ongoing pension? Would it change your perception of this maneuver if the disability has been a real, lingering issue (police work is quite hard on the lumbar spine, after all) and the officer has tolerated it for her career and then uses it strategically in this fashion? There's a fair amount of this sort of "double-dipping" going on, or so I'm told. Is this "fraud, waste, or corruption"? We want to call it that, but at the same time, the rules permit it. Do we want to begrudge our police officers a comfortable retirement after years of public service? Does closing this loophole really deny them that?

Later this morning, I'll go to court to do evictions. There, I will no doubt encounter more people who have spent all or nearly all of their lives deriving income solely from government entitlement and anti-poverty programs. I am not so conservative as to think that such programs should be abolished or to lose sight of the fact that there are people who use them as they were originally intended -- as helping hands up the economic ladder rather than as the economic foundation of a life.

But I am also not so liberal as to think that the programs are not being abused and that someone who is participating in those programs is automatically entitled to my sympathy and compassion -- and therefore my money. Many of them come to court dressed in better clothes than I wear (other than my suits) and drive better cars than I do. I'll eventually get around to fleshing out my "three classes, three wealths" idea, but suffice to say for write now, I write of people who are affluent members of the Third Class -- the people who know how to work the system and maximize their governmental benefits. Are they engaged in "fraud, waste, and corruption"?

I have lots of questions like these, but not really any answers, because I've been so frustrated by the institutionalized corruption that pervades California's government to the point that these sort of behaviors are not only tolerated but, as a functional matter, encouraged. It's been this way for so long it's hard to imagine it being otherwise and harder to imagine how the system could change. And even if I labor my imagination in this way, I cannot make it labor so hard as to think that a Democratic governor, no matter how pragmatic he may be, will convince a Legislature dominated by Democrats to do anything meaningful about this.

The other critique I have of the budget proposal, at least as writ large, is its functional parity between tax increases and spending cuts. This may be a political calculation on the Governor's part, intended to sell at least the basic concept of an austerity budget. But as I've pointed out previously, California's real problem -- despite all the economic stumbling blocks we've faced since mid-2008 -- is not one of insufficient revenue. While we aren't at the top of revenue per-capita among the various states, we're near the top. The problem is not that there isn't a tremendous amount of money coming in to the state government's coffers.

The problem is that the law commits such a large amount of money to be spent that even the generous revenues California earns cannot meet those commitments. This is what must change. And as I've said before, it's going to suck.

The good (if unpleasant) news is that the rubber does seem to finally be hitting the road. If the Monitor is to be believed, at least the Governor has really taken to heart the idea that it is long past time for business as usual to continue, that hard, unpopular choices must be made, and made this year.


Right around the holidays, American Atheists, Inc. used some of its money to rent space on a billboard near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel connecting Weehawken, New Jersey to Manhattan. They put up this image for one month:
A Christian church didn't like this so much, so they responded in kind -- renting the same billboard space for the month following the AA billboard:
This was exactly the right thing for the Christian church to do -- the remedy for speech you don't like is more speech of your own. The church's message was peaceful, pointed, and positive. While I don't necessarily agree with the message, I fully recognize their right to have done what they did, and I have nothing but praise for the way they went about exercising their right of self-expression.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as content as I to stand back and let others say what they have to say. The Friendly Atheist reports that this is what the church's billboard looked like yesterday:

This is totally and absolutely unacceptable. This atheist condemns the vandalism of the church's billboard, unequivocally, and I invite other atheists to do the same.

Now, it's not certain that the vandal is an atheist, but I'll admit that the motive of expressing disagreement with the content of the billboard seems substantially more likely than any other motive one might reasonably posit. He needs to knock it off. He's making the rest of us look bad.

Those Christians at the Times Square Church have the same right of expression that atheists do (and that everyone else does too, for that matter). Their church is, fundamentally, a collection of people, people of good faith and good intentions, who engaged a public debate in an appropriate and positive way. They paid good money to rent that billboard. For the month that they rented it, the billboard was effectively their property to have done with as they please (within reasonable limits which they obviously respected).

For someone else to come along and alter their message this way, however crudely, is stealing from them. Theft is not an appropriate form of expression. It is a crime.

Here's hoping the crime is detected and prosecuted. Vandal, even if you are a fellow atheist, you'll get no love from me. At least, not until you grow a pair, turn yourself in to the police, and apologize for what you've done.

Found Money

This sounds like good news from the Federal Reserve: the government will realize $31 billion of money that had not previously been expected this year. While the path to governmental solvency necessarily goes through the difficult territory of entitlement cuts, extra revenue is a nice contribution towards deficit reduction. Our overall path cannot change because we cannot rely on this sort of thing to be repeated in the future.

It is also encouraging news because it suggests that banks are doing better, which in turn means that individual borrowers are doing better paying on their loans. It is also good news because it demonstrates that contrary to the popular myth, the Federal Reserve does not funnel money generated in heroin sales for the Lizard People and the Queen of England.

January 10, 2011

Debate Responsibly

If you're going to criticize the harsh, escalating, polarizing, and purportedly violent partisan rhetoric of the Evil Other Party, then you have a duty to not engage in harsh, escalating, polarizing, or reasonably-perceived-as-violent partisan rhetoric yourself.

Policy disagreements are just that. Begin from the assumption that the other side is not threatening to turn America into a tyrannical totalitarian state, they're just plain old wrong. Then explain why their ideas are wrong and why your ideas are better.

Neither strident Republican rhetoric nor strident Democratic rhetoric caused Jared Lee Loughner to open fire in Tuscon on Saturday. Jared Lee Loughner was mentally ill and lacked the capacity to form any kind of a coherent or even identifiable political ideology. No one gets to pin him on the other side.

If you think the Other Guys are guilty of promulgating immoderate, dangerous rhetoric, then take care that your rhetoric is calm and reasonable. And don't consume intellectual product from those who engage in immoderate, dangerous rhetoric regardless of their ideology. Don't change your mind -- but do debate responsibly.

That is all.

January 8, 2011

Violence In Arizona

Today's shooting of a U.S. Representative and a U.S. District Court Judge in Tuscon, Arizona, is obviously terrible news. The Congresswoman in question had her office vandalized after her vote in favor of healthcare reform* but it's not really clear that the gunman was anything more than a schizophrenic nutjob. The news appears to be that Judge John Roll has been killed, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (who is the same age as me, scary!) is in surgery hours later after a bullet struck her head.

Political violence has no place -- zero -- in our system of government and our way of life.

* The MSNBC interview in the link was terrible.

January 7, 2011

From The Department Of Wait... What?

Rudy! Giuliani is going to run for President again?

Recall that in 2005, Giuliani began preparations after a "Draft Rudy" movement formed (and of course he had a hand in that, let's not be sly about that). He declared in 2007 and quickly supplanted John McCain as the Republican front-runner in the early stages of the primaries. He raised more money than anyone (Mitt Romney had more money than anyone, but that's because he tapped his own personal fortune). He attracted a lot of attention and support. Hell, I supported him.

Then Rudy! got some bad polling numbers from Iowa basically dropped out of the Iowa caucuses, coming in sixth out of seven major candidates there. Then, he came in fourth place out of eight in New Hampshire, attracting barely 9% of the total vote. Then, he came in sixth place three times in a row -- in Michigan he got 3% of the vote, in Nevada 4%, and in South Carolina 2%. He put all his eggs in the basket of Florida's early primary, coming in third place with not quite 15% of the vote, and that was basically it.

That's a pretty miserable showing for over seventy-five million dollars spent. Despite promising to appoint "strict constructionist" judges and coming as close as he could to flip-flopping on abortion, Rudy! just never caught on with conservative voters; he never shook off the mud slung at him concerning his personal life. Now, he says "there's opportunity for a moderate candidate with a background in national security." Maybe, Yerhonner, but that candidate isn't you.

Rudy!, your moment has passed. Your moment was really in 2004, but good for you, you were loyal to the party and didn't challenge W. And you didn't angle for a Cabinet position, either, which you should have done to burnish your resume for 2008. Instead, you went for the money, founding a security consultancy and attaching your name to a high-powered law firm.

By the time of the first election in 2012, it will have been more than ten years since you last really got to shine as a holder of public office. The remainder of your professional life is going to consist of security and governmental consulting for your consulting firm for as long as people will listen to you, and rainmaking for your top-100 law firm, and you've already got all the money you'll ever need to live as comfortably as you want and leave a lot for your hot wife and your adult kids, both estranged and still-gruntled.

Granted, you have to pay for your own plane, but all things considered, this is a damn sweet setup you've got going. Enjoy it, and let me dream a dream about Gary Johnson in 2012, until harsh reality intrudes on that.

I Have A Soft Spot For Elephants

Let's play a game, albeit a morbid one. I've found a crime from a real case, and I've created a hypothetical circumstance. Consider two crimes, both setting in motion chains of events which result in the death of a human being:

  1. Defendant is a construction worker who goes to his jobsite late early in the morning, and steals a stove. Four hours of morning rush-hour traffic and sixty miles later, the stove falls out of the guy's pickup truck. A big rig swerves to avoid the debris, jackknifes, and turns over. A passenger car is unable to swerve away from the big rid in time, gets pinned underneath the trailer, and is killed.
  2. Defendant is an animal trainer for a circus, who grows angry after an elephant fails to perform a trick properly during rehearsal and repeatedly strikes it with an electric cattle prod. The elephant goes berserk after being thus abused and rampages out of the tent, trampling and killing a fifth-grader who was trying to sneak into the tent to catch a peek of the exotic animals inside.
Now, imagine you're the judge. Which punishment do you give to each crime? Your choices are:

  1. One year in the county jail.
  2. Twenty-five years to life in state prison.
In the state of California, the correct answer is "A-2" and "B-1." Why? You might think that the decedent's status as a trespasser in "B" is important, but that's not really a very big factor at all.

In scenario "A," the thief has stolen goods valued in excess of $400. This is grand theft, a felony under Penal Code § 487. While still engaged in the commission of this crime (driving away with the stolen goods four hours later), an activity related to the crime sets in motion a chain of events causing the death of a human being. This is called felony murder and felony murder has the same sentences as overt murder. In the case of a real scumbag who really did this was convicted of first-degree murder, which gets you twenty-five to life. (No citation for the case yet; found via Prof. Shaun Martin.)

In scenario "B," the trainer who tortured the elephant has violated Penal Code § 596.5, which is a misdemeanor. Under California's misdemeanor-manslaughter rule, the commission of a misdemeanor resulting in the death of a human is chargeable as manslaughter only if the underlying criminal act – applying the cattle prod to the elephant – is, itself, dangerous to human life. People v. Cox (2000) 23 Cal.4th 665, 675-676. So there's not even misdemeanor manslaughter, much less felony murder, since it's only a misdemeanor to torture an elephant with an electric cattle prod or indeed in any other manner.

Now, we shouldn't feel too awful about the defendant in scenario "A." If you read the case, there's a lot of very unsavory facts about the actual, real-life defendant. I didn't call him a scumbag two paragraphs above for no reason. But most relevant to this case, he didn't put up the tailgate or put any tie-downs on the stuff he stole, which seems to me a separate criminal act that I wouldn't hesitate to call "reckless endangerment of human life." But there is no mention in the case of him even being accused of this crime. Rather, he was convicted of felony murder predicated upon burglary.

But the defendant in "B" (this one is the hypothetical situation) is also significantly morally culpable; his acts are outrageous. An elephant trainer ought to know that when you push an elephant too far, he will go on a rampage. It doesn't take an elephant trainer to know that rampaging elephant is a clear and present danger to any human being who might happen to be around, whether they are trespassing or not. Besides which, torturing an animal is inherently repugnant; the initial wrongful actions of the defendant in scenario "B" shock my conscience to a degree far more powerfully than do the facts in scenario "A."

Maybe your sense of morality is more offended by theft than animal abuse. Fair enough. But consider this: which of these two scenarios would lead a reasonable person to foresee a fatality, at the time the underlying crime was committed. You could go either way, but it's a close call either way. Just as the guy in scenario "A" could and should have reasonably foreseen a reckless danger to human life by not tying down the (ill-gotten) cargo in his truck, the guy in scenario "B" could and should have reasonably foreseen that the elephant would go into a rampage after being tortured. Neither of these are particularly lengthy stretches of the imagination. Given that the defendants' actual actions are roughly equal from the issue of foreseeability of future harm, there ought to be similar sentences. But no.

It would be too much of a stretch to say that this demonstrates that the State of California values stoves more than it does elephants. And while in the particular case of "A" the guy gets no tears from me, the totality of the chain of events in question makes a sentence of 25 to life for just anyone who did those things seem a little harsh. The sentence in "B," by contrast, is obviously inadequate punishment in light of both the moral gravity of the underlying act, and its tragic result.

January 6, 2011

Better Angels

In Tennessee, it's not all bigots trying to keep Muslims out of their towns with bizarrely abusive lawsuits. In Cordova, Tennessee (that's not far from Memphis), a Christian church is allowing a startup Muslim community to use its facilities for worship until it can get its mosque built. The church put up a big sign saying "Welcome to the neighborhood." The pastor explains it thus: "What would Jesus do if He were us? He would welcome the neighbor." Damn right he would have.

Likewise, in Egypt, many Muslims have reacted with horror with attacks by terrorists on Christian worshipers. So some of them formed a human shield around their Christian neighbors going to celebrate Christmas Eve services.* This is as clear a message as I can think of -- if you nutjobs think you're doing Allah's work by killing Christians, you're not, and we Muslims will not allow you to pretend that you're only killing infidels. Take your Koran seriously, especially the prohibition against murder.

I am frequently critical of religion for being used as a justification for acts of outright evil. But these are selfless, challenging, and truly moral behaviors. They are done by people of good intent, good faith, and strong religious convictions, taking the best and most noble dictates of their religions truly to heart. They lead their respective coreligionists by sterling example. These people deserve to be recognized and praised; I offer that praise and appreciation here freely, and with a glad heart.

* Christmas for Coptic Christians does not take place at the same time as it is for Orthodox or Occidental Christians because the Coptic church never adopted the Gregorian calendar.

Proof That It's Just Lip Service (Updated)

This morning will be the new House of Representative's much-ballyhooed ceremonial reading of the Constitution. While some are trying to attack this new ritual as a waste of $1.1 million, I tend to agree with the idea that the money angle is not particularly relevant or intellectually honest. Rather, I think that the problem here is that the ceremony is inevitably fated to be devoid of substance, it will change nothing, and by making the Constitution an object of empty ritual, it will drain the actual meaning out of the document itself.

As proof, let Exhibit A be the efforts of Congressman Steve King of Iowa and Exhibit B the efforts of Daryl Metcalfe of Pennsylvania. Both would have Congress adopt into law statutes which would require that at least one parent of a child born in the geographic borders of the United States also be a citizen of the US in order for that child to also be a citizen. Remember, they're using statutes. Statutes changing the way citizenship is derived. Statutes aimed at "anchor babies" and the granting of citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. Statutes introduced in to the House of Representatives on the very day that this phrase will be read out loud to the House as a reminder of a political commitment to respect the fundamental law of the United States:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.
That would be the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Rep. King's and Metcalf's bills would, if enacted into law, contradict the Constitution. This is as close to a no-brainer as it gets.

King and Metcalf, if they really want to change the way citizenship is handed out, need to sponsor a resolution to amend the Constitution. They could do that, of course, but are choosing to do it by statute instead. Perhaps because they don't think they would succeed in amending the Constitution (or they secretly fear they would succeed), but more likely because they value putting on a show of taking a stand against an imagined threat with questionable basis in reality more than focusing their efforts on trying to solve real problems -- problems which Congress' new leaders find politically convenient to backpedal upon (read: "break") their promises to address.

So on the same day that this ceremonial reading of the Constitution is going to take place, it will be demonstrated to be an idle, empty ritual because no matter who controls Congress, no matter what rituals they hold, they will simply disregard the Constitution when it is politically convenient for them to do so. Which is why clear-eyed Americans should view this morning's proceedings as merely an empty ritual.

Update:  And it turns out, they're not even going to read the whole thing -- they're going to bowdlerize it to leave out the historically embarrassing parts. (Thanks to Ken for reminding me of that great word.) I'd say, "If you're going to do it at all, do it right," but the whole thing is already a charade.

Now Go Vaccinate Your Children

The data in the study suggesting that the MMR vaccine causes autism was knowingly falsified. It was based on intentionally-selected, "chiseled" data. It was a lie. It was a lie with consequences:

...measles has surged since Wakefield's paper was published and there are sporadic outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. In 2008, measles was deemed endemic in England and Wales.

A preventable disease for which there is a known, effective, affordable, and plentiful vaccine, is spreading throughout industrialized nations with powerful medical services delivery infrastructures.

Why? Because of ignorance facilitated by lies dressed up to look like science, to be sure. Because Andrew Wakefield (no longer entitled to use the title "Doctor,"), the principal author of the original study, put a higher premium on grabbing the spotlight for himself than on scientific integrity.

Why? Because of irresponsible, sensationalistic journalism -- first in the UK, and later here in the US. I remember seeing the 60 Minutes story that sensationalized this bit of mythology, and wondering why the doctors in that story who called Wakefield's methods "irresponsible," were buried so far in the middle of it as to make me question whether I was watching tabloid TV or investigative journalism.

Why? Because an attractive celebrity, heartbroken over her son turning out to be autistic, chose to cope by latching on to this dangerous lie, with the result that thousands of children have fallen ill and hundreds have died, who need not have.

I'm preaching to the choir here, I'm sure. But this whole thing is a graphic, if deeply saddening, example of why a credulous approach to the world is not only wrong-headed but dangerous. Skeptics bear the brunt of a lot of prejudice because of their tendency to question things like religion. But this is part of why skepticism is in the public interest and a skeptical approach to the world, while admittedly less fun than one based on faith and hope and emotion, will nevertheless produce better results.

Vaccinate your children. It's a duty.

January 5, 2011

It’s Not About Revenue

Sadly, the first remedy that Governor Brown has proposed to California's budget woes has been to raise taxes. A fellow Californian complains here that "California has a spending problem, not a tax-revenue problem." That sounds right to me, but when something seems right to you, that's time to go do a little research and engage in a little critical thought. What I came up with was an experiment to look up the revenues of the various states and compare them to the populations, to find out how much money each state takes in per resident. I figured, in agreement with the linked author, that California would probably have among the highest amounts of revenue per citizen in the nation.

State revenue data was located here. I also used Wikipedia's reporting of the 2010 census results for population. The rest was math and sorting. Here's what I came up with:
FY 2010 revenue
2010 population 
Revenue per citizen 
$ 36,395.48  
$ 19,148.70  
$ 16,927.75  
$ 14,548.65  
West Virginia 
$ 13,167.88  
New York 
$ 10,976.31  
$ 10,736.71  
North Dakota
$ 10,407.51  
Rhode Island 
$ 10,260.63  
$ 9,472.49  
$ 9,172.18  
New Jersey 
$ 8,985.55  
$ 8,907.98  
$ 8,476.42  
$ 7,921.16  
$ 7,806.17  
$ 7,692.42  
$ 7,597.00  
$ 7,571.85  
$ 7,558.62
$ 7,543.58  
$ 7,257.78  
$ 7,249.49  
$ 7,191.47
$ 7,156.09  
North Carolina 
$ 7,068.34  
$ 7,019.11  
$ 6,841.54  
$ 6,827.41  
$ 6,791.57  
$ 6,717.09  
$ 6,711.64  
$ 6,625.42  
New Hampshire 
$ 6,608.58  
$ 6,569.54  
$ 6,549.42  
$ 6,534.09
South Carolina 
$ 6,464.36  
$ 6,397.00  
$ 6,230.91  
South Dakota 
$ 6,141.15
$ 6,038.78  
New Mexico 
$ 5,973.25  
$ 5,927.61  
$ 5,695.42
$ 5,669.03  
$ 5,549.95  
$ 5,438.04  
$ 5,291.57  
$ 5,247.06  
$ 5,104.88  
Now, this is looking at all sources of revenue, not just taxes paid by ordinary people. The top of the list is filled with special cases. High direct Federal subsidies and substantial excise or corporate income taxes seem to be a factor – but they aren't universal. Alaska gets a lot of its revenue from excise taxes, because it is a major oil producer, but Oklahoma is also a major oil producer and it is near the bottom of the list.

Consider also the relative financial health of the various states. Here, I can see no relationship. States with serious financial problems, and states with relatively clean bills of fiscal health, are scattered throughout the list.

But the theory is that state government revenues are not high enough, so they need more money – in this particular case, the theory is that the state of California isn't collecting enough money to meet its citizens' needs. In terms of gross revenue, California is far ahead of any other state-level government; in terms of money in per capita, California ranks eleventh out of fifty-one, or tenth if you exclude D.C. I think this roughly but not precisely confirms the proposition that revenue is not the basic problem. The evidence is not as strong on that as I would prefer to confirm my pre-existing bias; the table suggests that the state probably can squeeze some more revenue out of its tax base and may be able to find additional sources of other revenue. But probably not a whole lot more.

The data does roughly support the proposition that revenue is not the issue. There is no relationship between revenue and a state's financial health. There is little relationship between revenue and the kind of sources of that revenue. Factoring out money per citizen, we produce a more-or-less random list of states. It's not about revenue. It's about spending.